Barely a week after “My Super Ex-Girlfriend,” Hollywood offers us another comedy about women taking revenge on a man. But the titular fellow in “John Tucker Must Die” isn’t a harmless schlub who tries to break off from a clingy, ultra-powerful super-heroine; he’s a high school jock who’s a serial dater-and-dumper, targeted by a trio of the co-eds he’s juggled and jilted. And their plan against him, after preliminary efforts to undermine his popularity have the opposite effect, ultimately takes a form reminiscent of so many other teen flicks: make him fall for another girl–a plain Jane whom they transform into a seductive beauty–and then destroy his ego by having her reject him. (Of course, in earlier incarnations–often starring Freddie Prinze, Jr.–the guy romances an ugly duckling on a bet and not only finds the swan within but falls for her.)
Tucker, the smug and handsome all-star captain of the school’s basketball team, is played by the implausibly short Jesse Metcalfe, the amorous lawn boy of “Desperate Housewives,” and Kate, the nondescript girl chosen to break his heart and make him “undatable,” by Brittany Snow. Both are actually pretty personable youngsters, if hardly stellar actors, and you have to admire in particular Metcalfe’s willingness to suffer a series of humiliations at the hands of Tucker’s tormentors. (Appearing on screen in nothing but a bright-red thong isn’t exactly the sort of thing an aspiring screen hunk might think a career-boosting move.)
But though likable, they’re hamstrung by Jeff Lowell’s script; it’s his first feature screenplay after years of television work, and though it actually has a few amusing episodes, it retains a decidedly Disney sitcom feel, along with more than a hint of the kind of frat-boy crassness that infects so much that passes for comedy on the tube nowadays. The effort toward the close to have everybody learn important life lessons about honesty and being yourself, in old John Hughes “Breakfast Club” style (it turns out that while Tucker may be a cad, he’s a cad with the possibility of self-recognition), moreover, comes across as both dutiful and not very funny.
Nor does director Betty Thomas find a way to invest the material with the sort of distinctive style she once gave to “The Brady Bunch Movie.” Together with DP Anthony B. Richmond and production designer Marcia Hinds, she manages to keep things colorful, and in collaboration with editor Matthew Friedman she pilots the movie along well enough. But the repeated establishing shots of the high school facade, which seem to pop up every three minutes or so, become tiresome, and ultimately so does the whole picture.
The supporting cast, meanwhile, is a mixed bag. Of Tucker’s three vengeful ex-girlfriends, Arielle Kebbel, as the brainy Carrie, and Sophia Bush, as hyper-activist Beth, have their moments, even if they’re at the level of caricature, but Ashanti, as a cheerleader with abundant attitude, is wearyingly one-note. (Her presence also points up an oddity on the school’s basketball team, which appears to be almost lily-white, though the obese fellow who plays its costumed mascot–played by the aptly-named Fatso-Fasano–is African-American.) Penn Badgley has a typically cute-rebel look (as well as an oddly deep voice) as Tucker’s good-natured younger brother, who’s obviously smitten with Kate, and Jenny McCarthy slinks about as the girl’s mother, who’s promiscuous dating habits irk her daughter but who proves wise beyond expectation in advising her daughter that she’s not being true to herself in baiting Tucker.
Mom Lori’s habit of packing up and moving to another town whenever her romances fail (leaving Kate a constant newcomer in her school)–the device with which this movie kicks off–is, incidentally, the same one on which Hilary Duff’s “The Perfect Man” was predicated. And though it’s easy to dismiss “Tucker” as a cheesy comedy for the prepubescent female audience, a comparison to that dead-brain movie makes it look less obnoxious.
Sure, it’s formulaic and silly, descends too often into innuendo (while studiously avoiding anything sexually explicit), and can’t make up its mind whether to be “Mean Girls” or “Sixteen Candles,” opting instead to try for a mixture of the two that doesn’t really gel. But it’s got a reasonably attractive cast and a few bright spots–not enough to give it a pass, but sufficient to grade it, in this ordinarily dreadful genre at least, as slightly above average. Given the low quality these teen comedies represent, that’s not saying much, but if it isn’t “Clueless” or even “She’s the Man,” neither does “John Tucker Must Die” sink to the level of so many pictures of this ilk.