— We are told that the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland hopes to unlock various mysteries of the physical universe, including what it is that bonds atoms to one another. (Forgive me if I’m getting this wrong, science people; physics was my one “F” in high school.)
If only someone could get the successful parts of “I Love You, Beth Cooper” to merge together into something that resembles a good movie. As it is, we’re left with scattered funny bits that pop up between long stretches of boredom and sketchy character development. As one-crazy-night teen comedies go, it won’t be mentioned in the same breath as “Superbad,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Sixteen Candles” or “American Graffiti.” Or even “Can’t Hardly Wait.”
Paul Rust — even at 28, he may be the most realistically dorky leading man in teen movies since Anthony Michael Hall — stars as Denis Cooverman, the nerdy valedictorian of his high school class. Prompted by his best friend Rich (Jack T. Carpenter), whose sexual orientation is speculated upon throughout the entire film, Denis takes the opportunity of his graduation speech to blurt out the titular confession to the most popular girl in school.
For her part, Beth (Hayden Panettiere of “Heroes”) finds herself the teensiest bit flattered, although she’s not above attending Denis’ graduation party (sole guest: Rich) with the idea of later mocking it. Over the course of the evening, however, as she helps Denis escape the clutches of her thuggish ROTC boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts, who memorably played a date-rapist on “Degrassi: The Next Generation”), the pretty cheerleader and the shy geek get to know each other better.
That’s the idea, anyway, but neither Panettiere’s performance nor the screenplay by Larry Doyle (adapting his own novel) turn Beth Cooper into a real person who’s deserving of Denis’ affection. We’re supposed to see these two discover each other at their worst — Denis can’t believe Beth would kiss a convenience-store clerk just to get beer, while Beth is alarmed to see a giant poster of herself hanging over Denis’ bed — before learning that they really do click, but the clicking never happens.
Rust nails the character, but he falls victim to the movie’s deadly pacing. Director Chris Columbus (“Home Alone”) divides the movie’s peaks with ever-deepening valleys, diminishing the impact of laugh-getting moments like Denis’ struggles with a champagne bottle or an unexpected discussion of “Hamlet.”
Carpenter has fun with the character — an Errol Flynn–inspired towel-snapping fight definitely stands out as a high point of “Beth Cooper” — but Rich’s habit of quoting movies and then giving the title, year and director gets grating fast. (Speaking as a film nerd myself, I have never met anyone in my entire life who self-annotates this much.)
There are times when the Beth Cooper character becomes so irritatingly banal that you suspect that the movie is setting you up for Denis to discover that one of her two sidekicks is really the girl of his dreams, but no. We’re left with what feels like a wish-fulfillment story written by someone who has yet to meet the girl of his dreams, or who at least has no idea what’s really going on inside her head.