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September 25, 2008 |

By TK Burton | Pajiba Blockbusters | September 25, 2008 |

As we near the eve of the release of a 10th anniversary of Can’t Hardly Wait, I feel as if I should be beset with guilt and shock. Shock because it’s been ten years, but feels like less. Guilt because I shouldn’t enjoy it as much as I do. After all, Can’t Hardly Wait borrows heavily and shamelessly from John Hughes, is overstuffed with stereotypical characters, and is so goddamn cute that it should make my stomach clench at the very mention of it. And yet …

Despite all of that, it’s also a genuinely good movie. For those who have been living at the Earth’s core for the last ten years, Can’t Hardly Wait is one in a long line of “teens on the cusp of change” films. The plot is almost painful to describe: Preston Meyers (Ethan Embry) is graduating high school. On the last night of his high school life, he plans to storm the biggest party of the year and proclaim his love for Amanda Beckett (Jennifer Love Hewitt), the girl he’s pined after from afar for the last four years. Amanda is the prettiest, most popular girl in school, who’s just recently broken up with her football playing, beer-swilling, oafish steakhead of a boyfriend, Mike Dexter (Peter Facinelli), so now she’s ripe for the picking. Preston’s even bringing the letter that he wrote long ago, a beautiful love note that’s apparently Dobleresque in its eloquence. Of course, Preston runs into all sorts of obstacles along the way, almost giving up hope before he can finally meet and confront his princess.

I know, OK? I know. It sounds ridiculous. Yet it works, for two reasons: the writing is great — in no small part due to the numerous sub-plots and mini-stories that weave their way through Preston’s night. There’s Preston’s best friend Denise (Lauren Ambrose — HBO’s “Six Feet Under”), the high school misfit who ends up locked in the bathroom with Kenny “Special K” Fisher. Kenny used to be her best friend in grade school, but has somehow converted himself into a wannabe gangsta. Kenny is played by an uproarious Seth Green in what is easily one of his best roles — he’s only out that night to get laid, claiming to his fellow idiot wannabe buds that, “It took me all day, but I’ve narrowed it down to ten very lucky finalists.” Needless to say, Denise is not one of those finalists. Then there’s William Lichter (Charlie Korsmo, in what was actually his last role before he quit acting), the high school nerd who is plotting to use this night to exact his revenge on Mike Dexter for a lifetime of torment, destroyed science projects, and “the pudding incident.” Dexter himself is trying to persuade his buddies to break up with their girlfriends so that they can spend the summer partying and nailing every girl they can find. There’s even a high school band that encounters inner strife just before their big performance at the party. It’s all part of an overall riotously funny, wacky-yet-sincere series of comedic and dramatic events that become parts of a larger piece.

Amazingly, each of these little tales is well-developed, emotionally rich and range from damn funny to balls-out hysterical. This is in no small part due to the second reason Can’t Hardly Wait succeeds — the cast. The cast is a 90’s teen smorgasbord. In addition to the main characters already listed, the film is rife with faces that you are bound to recognize — some of whom are only there for a moment, but it’s a well-utilized moment. Clea Duvall, Donald Faison, Breckin Meyer, Melissa Joan Hart, Sean Patrick Thomas and Selma Blair are just a few of the actors featured in parts ranging from 5 seconds to 5 minutes, and all of them absolutely nail their respective moments.

Therein lies part of the genius of the movie — it’s a movie full of moments, and those moments are the things that stick out. Truth be told, the saga of Preston and Amanda is at times rather boring. Hewitt has never really been an impressive actor, and this is no exception. With the exception of her big confrontation scene with Facinelli’s Mike and the scene where her creepy cousin makes a pass at her, she’s basically the same doll-eyed, gaspy, hand-wringing bosom-heaver that she’s been since her “Party of Five” days — she’s been playing different incarnations of Sarah Reeves since 1995. So while Embry is cute and awkward and so painfully earnest that you want to either take him home, or slap the taste out of his mouth (or both), the central storyline occasionally falters due to Hewitt’s unfortunately derivative performance. It’s not entirely her fault, I suppose — the character is written as rote and bland, and she was the perfect selection for it. Although, every time I trash Hewitt’s performance, I can’t help but wonder — I suspect many of us knew that girl in high school, who seemed beautiful and popular and you couldn’t help but fall in love with her a little, even if you didn’t know her worth a damn. Hell, for all I know, she was the most boring, annoying brat this side of the Pecos. But that’s not the point of childhood flights of fancy, and it’s certainly not the point here.

Even so, take away the main plot and you still have a wonderful little movie. The moments make the movie — Seth Green trying to practice his mackin’ skills using a kama sutra book in a bathroom is particularly hilarious; better still is when his homeboys call him out on his tall tales, and he, flustered and embarrassed, cries out “Yo, why you gotta waste my flava?! Damn!” Donald Faison’s, “Then I get to wear the hat” moment is another. Of course, one of the unquestionably greatest is Korsmo’s “Paradise City” moment. And just as the film is starting to veer into being too heavy and serious, as the teens are starting to fear the future, a drunk-for-the-first-time William hears Guns N’ Roses “Paradise City” and explodes into action, grabbing a microphone and in a crazed, unrepentant moment of geek-cum-rockstar, achieves a sudden and unexpected glory that you know people will remember forever. What’s even better is that many of the characters may be stereotypical in movie land, but in the real world, many of us probably knew a lot of these kids growing up. The girl who made it her mission, regardless of how fucking annoying it was, to get everyone to sign her yearbook (Melissa Joan Hart) (God, I hated that girl in real life). Chris Owen, aka The Shermanator as the klepto kid who moved silently through the throng, casually and pointlessly stealing shit (in my school, that person was known as “TK’s cousin.” sigh). Each character plays their moment to perfection, and by doing so makes the sum of those moments something even greater.

To be honest, it’s something of a cinematic miracle that Can’t Hardly Wait succeeded at all. Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan the team that both wrote and directed the movie, are also responsible for writing and directing Josie and the Pussycats, as well as writing other cinematic vomitus like Made of Honor and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas. So we’re not talking about a Hughesian pedigree here. Yet the writing is sharp, wickedly funny, and surprisingly, the more emotional scenes actually work. For the most part, it avoids the stupid slapstick and grossout humor that pervades a lot of other contemporary teen comedies. Part of its success can be attributed to the fact that the writers were unafraid to color up the language and to not be afraid of sexual references or alcohol usage — things that (for better or worse) are somewhat essential if you want to make a remotely realistic coming of age high school film — particularly one that takes place at the end of high school.

Of course, the movie also shamelessly apes some of the John Hughes films of the 80s, not to mention its gratuitous borrowing from/homage to Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything… The basic idea of Preston and Amanda is almost identical to that of Lloyd and Diane — the admiration of the girl he doesn’t know, the big party at the end of school, the letter (versus the card in Say Anything…). But while there are obvious, glaring similarities to be found, what ultimately separates it from the pack and gives it a place in the teen movie pantheon is that it doesn’t focus on the story of just one couple and their issues. In fact, Preston and Amanda don’t even speak to each other until more than an hour into the film. Instead, the focus is more widely-encompassing, embracing the stories of the people around them, and deftly making Preston’s quest a simple weave in the larger tapestry of the film. Also refreshing is its avoidance of fixating on the overwrought, overused, teen-angst-ridden tumult that some filmmakers feel compelled to include. There aren’t any emotional proclamations of devotion set to sweeping power ballads — in fact, just when you think the film is headed that way, Preston crashes and burns in spectacular fashion.

Therein lies one of the other strengths — despite all of that, Can’t Hardly Wait doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Even its most emotional scenes come with a little bit of a sly jab — Preston’s great epiphanic moment concerns a Barry Manilow song and a stripper dressed as an angel (played by a delightful Jenna Elfman), and Denise and Kenny’s tender moment is filled with the kind of awkward, clumsy missteps that create a funny yet embarrassing atmosphere. Coupled with the all around, flat-out goofiness that surrounds the rest of the partygoers, and the film succeeds in keeping you grinning throughout. Oddly, one of its most effective moments occurs when a drunk, maudlin Mike encounters an equally drunk, confused Trip McNally (Jerry O’Connell), who is the original high school douchebag, back from college with tales of striking out left and right with the more ambitious, intellectual college freshmen.

If there is a pantheon of teen movies, Can’t Hardly Wait certainly belongs in the conversation. It lacks the emotional sledgehammer of Say Anything…, not to mention that Preston is miles away in terms of cool-guyness from Lloyd (but then, that’s part of his appeal), but also lacks the mawkishness and sentimentality of Pretty in Pink. It’s not as ridiculously goofy as Weird Science, but certainly more effective than American Pie. It’s simply a good movie, full of sweetness and silliness. Is it going to provide new and valuable insight into the mind of a teenager? No, but what is. However, it’s likely more realistic than most of the adolescent (both in cast and in concept) pablum out there, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t far more entertaining.

TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.

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Can't Hardly Wait / TK

Pajiba Blockbusters | September 25, 2008 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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