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Movie Review: SHe's All That

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
staff reporter

Directed by Robert Iscove.

Written by R. Lee Fleming Jr.

With Freddie Prinze Jr., Rachael Leigh Cook, Jodi Lyn O'Keefe, Paul Walker, Matthew Lillard, Kieran Culkin, Anna Paquin.

Embarking on a quest for a good film is like looking for a diamond in the rough, or rather, given the particular slate of current films, it is more like looking for a diamond in a pile of dung. From this particular analogy follows that the people who provide the material for us critics do the reverse thing: namely, they take diamonds and thoroughly mix them up with a good deal of dung. Aww, shucks. Thanks, guys. Really. You shouldn't have.

Case in point: She's All That is an adaptation of the Pigmalion myth first reworked by George Bernard Shaw, later adapted into My Fair Lady and who knows into what else. This particular regurgitation sorry, I can't think of this movie in any appetizing terms chooses the milieu of a high school, where a local stud (Zack played by Freddie Prinze Jr.) bets his equally studly best pal Dean (Paul Walker) that he can turn any girl into a prom queen. Together, they choose a proper subject for this high-minded sociological experiment, and their subject is a true pariah, a deservedly snubbed outcast. After all, Laney Boggs (Rachael Leigh Cook) is an artist! She wears glasses! She actually has to work for a living! The studly boys take this girl, remove her glasses, strip her of her paint-splattered overalls, cut her long beautiful hair, and pronto, they've got a babe!

The whole reason why Shaw's Pigmalion didn't feel like a story of two powerful men torturing a weak girl was because the girl was a stronger, smarter, and overall better person than both of her, um, benefactors. Here, Laney is treated both by Zack and Co. and by the filmmakers, as more of an object than a subject, with both parties being rather more interested in her cleavage than in the fact that she's a real human being.

Which she, unfortunately, is and this brings me back to the diamonds. I dearly wish She's All That were just a pile of junk, an unabashed teen exploitation romp which one could view just for what it was, a shameless and ungainly excuse to showcase nubile and virile young things in tightly fitting swimsuits and outfits. But that's not enirely the case here since there is just enough creativity, originality, flair, and true human emotions hidden in this mess to make me lament the surrounding inanity.

As gems go, the first and foremost one is Rachael Leigh Cook, who was just about the best thing in the last year's black indie comedy The House of Yes. Cook is ethereally beautiful, wistful, and a very promising actress. She imbues Laney with enough deadpan wit, unflagging concentration, and a rare touch of physical grace, both serious and comical. Of course, her perfect face kills any suspension of disbelief at the very outset, since no sane male can consider her anything less than stunning. But this gripe notwithstanding, she's all that the film needs.

Other pluses: a sprinkling of colorful supporting characters on the periphery, including Kieran Culkin (yes, of that acting family) as Laney's young brother and Anna Paquin (an Oscar winner), slumming, but still very good, as Zack's sister. There's also a highly creative opening title sequence, and no, that's really all of it.

The rest of this film is not diamonds, just big old lumps of coal. Freddie Prinze Jr., who also had a role in The House of Yes and was just about the worst thing about it, plays Zack as a particularly dense kind of a sadist, which is clearly not the most effective way to portray a romantic hero. Maybe it's the fact that I'm male, but for the life of me I can't see why anyone would consider him attractive; with his long rectangular head, square haircut, and a bobbing Adam's apple, he looks very much like the younger version of Frankenstein's monster, lacking only the bolts in his neck. Ladies, if anyone could tell me what's so hot about him, I'd be much obliged.

And then, of course, there is the plot, or rather a sorry excuse for one, rambling from one scene to the next with all the urgency of drying paint, filled with lame attempts at whimsical humor, disgusting attempts at gross-out humor, and the usage of complex issues (genocide, ecology) as laughter fodder. But, alas, not all the time. Just when it's the least expected, something touching comes along, like the scene where Zack and Laney almost kiss. It's quite a poignant moment, and it made me further lament that it wasn't in a better movie.

There's a lot of goodwill generated by high-school romantic comedies. At their best, they make the viewers feel young again. She's All That made me feel, by contrast, old. By the way, the film is doing very well financially, and is bound to become a highly profitable venture for the studio that released it. And this studio is o tempora! o mores! Miramax, the force behind The English Patient and Pulp Fiction and The Wings of the Dove and Shakespeare in Love. As I said before, guys, you really shouldn't have.