Her name was Florencia Bess.
Yes, I had a Beth Cooper. She wasn’t the head cheerleader or unattainable because she was at some unreachable social stratus. I dated in high school, had girlfriends, had friends. I don’t identify with the knock-kneed nerd in films who never figures out how to talk to girls, because I realized early on that I was never going to date unless I figured that out. But there were certain girls… and I’m sure this is true for everyone… who stood so far outside the standard definition of “girls,” that they seemed to explode every rule I knew, and because of that, no amount of experience helped.
She made it worse by being sweet and funny and easy to talk to, and when we both worked the same after-school job, she was absolutely part of the same peer group. It’s just that when I’d try to express just how much she impacted me, I couldn’t. Looking back now, I know that what I was feeling wasn’t “love.” It was more akin to chemical overload. She overwhelmed me when I was around her. She made me write buckets of bad poetry. And on those rare occasions I actually got all the neurons firing, I would profess my love to her. Over and over. And yet I couldn’t understand why that didn’t lead to a first date. Obviously I was just as suffocating as she was overwhelming, and just as I had no experience with adoring someone to that degree, she had no experience with being adored to that degree.
“I Love You, Beth Cooper” is ostensibly a teen comedy in the tradition of John Hughes in the ’80s or “American Pie” or “Fast Times At Ridgmont High.” And both in book form and on film, there are any number of references to other classics of the genre, nods in structure or in scenes or in the ways author Larry Doyle subverts our expectations. But there’s more to it, and that’s why I guess I’m a little puzzled by the knee-jerk rejection of this film by so many. There’s some real meat on this one in the way it examines the distance between the fantasy we can build in our heads of someone and the reality that we’d have to confront if we actually got to know the person, something that cuts right to the heart of desire in all its forms: how often do we really want the thing we think we want, and how often does it really make us happy when we get it?
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Paul Rust, a sight gag before he ever delivers a line of dialogue, stars as Denis Cooverman, who has spent most of his academic life sitting behind Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere) in class after class after class. While delivering his valedectorian address during graduation, he confesses his love for Beth Cooper and also drops some other truths about his fellow students, things left unsaid. The fallout from that speech is what fuels his long, crazy night that includes a black eye, random acts of nudity, near death, bad driving, KISS, kisses, and coked-out army men. And while all of that sounds like the film is going to be played as nothing but wacky comedy, the film is actually fairly small and sincere, with the occasional swing into the overly broad. Those moments of big physical comedy are probably the reason the film got made (20th Century Fox never saw a “oh, look, that cute animal is actually a vicious killer” joke they didn’t love), but they’re the thing that keeps me from wholeheartedly recommending the film to you. What worked really well on the page in Doyle’s novel can sometimes feel hollow and fake onscreen, because it just doesn’t feel credible.
What does feel credible are the relationships. Paul Rust and Jack Carpenter are the somewhat nerdy outsiders and best friends who find themselves packing a full four years of teen experience into one long night. Rust anchors the film well, but it’s Carpenter who takes his role and makes a run for movie stardom with it. He’s Richard Munch, Denis’s best friend, a movie-quoting possibly gay kid with a lousy home life and a permanent smile. He gets to play one of the greatest homages to the Errol Flynn “Robin Hood” I’ve ever seen, not that 99% of the target audience for this film will have any idea what they’re referencing. Rust also turns out to have solid chemistry with Panettiere, which is good, since I don’t really think she’s got much chemistry on her own at all. She strikes me as a real-life Beth Cooper, a girl who has gotten where she is and what she has based on how she looks, even though there’s not much under the hood. She’s a cute girl, but I don’t think she’s exhibited much range as a performer, and I’m not sure I buy her even when she’s playing within that narrow range. Her friends, played by Lauren Storm and Lauren London, are more consistently interesting in the film. There’s something about Storm’s wide naughty smile that makes her the focus of a shot even when she’s just in the background of scenes. She seems to be alive, actually thinking, and not just holding a space in a scene while waiting for her next line.
The rabid military boyfriend is a drag on the film, largely because Shawn Roberts brings little to the role beyond narrow feral eyes, treetrunk arms, and a flat-top. He doesn’t have the ability to twist the characterization a la James Marsden in “Sex Drive” or Bill Paxton in “Weird Science,” and a role like this needs something slightly crazy driving it, or it doesn’t work. It just becomes the sort of cliche that so much of the script seems intent on deflating.
Columbus is at his best in the film’s quiet moments, and with some of the supporting cast like Alan Ruck and Cynthia Nixon as Rust’s parents. The more honest the film plays things, the better it is, and the eventual conclusion of the evening between Rust and Panettiere is more touching than I would have expected.
I’m not sure what happened to Florencia Bess. While I’m still in touch with many people from high school, she vanished, and the few times I’ve tried to indulge my idle curiosity, I’ve come up cold. I hope that wherever she is and whatever she’s doing, she’s happy and satisfied, and that she found a guy who was in love with the real her and not some imagined version in his head. The only other time in my life that I’ve met someone who left me as unsteady and as flummoxed as her was when I met my wife. She seemed to live in a different world than me, pretty and quiet and unconnected to the film business, and I spent months convincing myself that she’d never be able to deal with the lunacy that is my life. When I finally let my guard down and got close to her, she turned out to be different than I expected, but unlike “Beth Cooper,” I didn’t find her disappointing. Far from it. Instead, I realized that this person was stronger and smarter and more decent than anyone else I knew, and I found myself drawn to the reality of her in a way that the fantasy never would have supported. And even now, seven years after we were married, I find that she can be difficult and demanding and frustrating and infuriating and complicated, and I wouldn’t trade my life with her for anything or anyone. Because the difficult reality of our lives together is worth it for the highs, for the family we’ve created together, and for the sheer knowledge that I’m going to have to work the rest of my life to keep her engaged, never taking for granted that I deserve this person. And no matter how intoxicating those fantasy girls are when we’re young, they are just that… fantasy. In its best moments, “I Love You, Beth Cooper” proves to be more knowing about relationships and love than most movies of its ilk, and for those moments, I would say it’s worth your time.
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