Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

CAN'T HARDLY WAIT (1998) * 1/2

Written and directed by Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan. Photography, Lloyd Ahern. Editing, Michael Jablow. Production design, Marcia Hinds-Johnson. Music, David Kitay & Matthew Sweet. Produced by Jenno Topping and Betty Thomas. Cast: Jennifer Love Hewitt (Amanda), Ethan Embry (Preston), Charlie Korsmo (William), Lauren Ambrose (Denise), Peter Facinelli (Mike), Seth Green (Kenny), Jerry O'Connell, (Trip McNeely), Jenna Elfman (Angel). A Columbia Pictures release. 95 min. PG-13

High-school kids are human, but you'd hardly think so from a large number of movies about them, including Can't Hardly Wait. It's the first directorial effort by Kaplan and Elfont whose main claim to fame was being among the five writers of A Very Brady Sequel.

A few teen films have been on the thoughtful side: the classic post-graduation American Graffiti, the excellent end-of-school-year Dazed and Confused (by Richard Linklater), some works by John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles), the funny-to-hilarious Fast Times at Ridgemont High (by Amy Heckerling), Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Weird Science (both by Hughes).

Note that the Hughes titles above were set in Illinois, while Dazed and Confused is in Texas. The school of the CHW kids is in California, the center of the universe as per Hollywood. The sad denial of another America beyond the southern Pacific coast continues, obviously for practical filmmaking reasons.

The opening credits are a quick, cutesy way to introduce the main characters, their accomplishments, aims, favorite quotes, etc. As a rule this gimmick makes one suspect the worst. One quote is "A true friend stabs you in the front, " attributed to Oscar Wilde. I cannot guarantee its authenticity, but a search for it turned up a Wildeism more germane to the film: "There is no sin, except stupidity. "

The film's title must refer to the impatience of the kids to leave adolescence for maturity, as well as to the state of English in schools. Following the seniors' graduation ceremony, their class has the usual ritualistic bash--in the home of a girl who ought to have known better than volunteer the place. The party is a rite of passage --not the Rites of Spring but the Trites of Spring. The motto, as in other such events, must be Brew and Screw.

For its characters, the filmmakers round up the usual suspects, all of them types found in the teen genre. If there is some originality here, it is well-hidden by cliches gathered from earlier flicks. CHW's deja vu types and actions make up a pot-pourri, an expression where "pourri" means "putrid. " But this epithet would be too strong a condemnation of a movie whose main guilt is total superficiality.

The action almost entirely takes place at the shindig. Celebrants range from geeks to nerds to jocks to cuties. Without a central plot or guiding thread, the whole thing is just a collection of skin-deep subplots. The main one is this: athletic Mike, the BMOC, has just dumped Amanda, his girl since freshman class, as part of "game plan" with his pals. The idea is that those among them who are going on to college will have women by the regiment falling into their arms and beds, so why not break with the boys' current liaisons? It's not only a dumb idea but a revoltingly cynical one.

Learning this, college-bound would-be writer Preston wants to declare his love to now-uncommitted Amanda. He is a likable, shy fellow who has been adoring her silently ever since they both were freshmen. In a flashback to four years ago, the movie goofs by showing Amanda, Preston and others looking exactly as they do now. Add to this the sin that Hollywood has been committing since silent movie days and in many contemporary films as well: too many screen students --high-schoolers or undergraduates--are perceptibly older than they would be in real life.

Preston comes to the party with his confidante and best pal Denise. She is brainy a la Janeane Garofalo, even looks like a mix of Garofalo and a young Kathy Bates. She lacks confidence in her own appearance, is outside the girlish loop, critical of others, has a mordant tongue. Another subplot will involve her being accidentally locked inside a bathroom with Seth, with predictable consequences. He is a white boy whose solution to having an identity has been to adopt a black personality in dress, speech, manners, music, and the like. (There are, by the way, some merely token minority students at the party)

As for Amanda, she's been a kind of First Lady all along, Queen of this and of that. She is nice but, like almost everyone else, not a thinking person. (You wonder how the vague Preston will perform as a writer) Amanda does get the film' s main profundity when she realizes (and confesses a bit pathetically) that all her glory came from being Mike's satellite. With some people, it takes time to see the obvious.

I will not mention other characters, events or gratuitous developments of CHW. The partygoers, are without exception not just undeveloped but undersketched. There are few small saving graces. One is the movie's relative briefness. Even though the title calls for the joke I Could Hardly Wait For It To Finish, I did not find it unbearable -- just blah. Another is that Preston is neither depicted as pathologically shy nor as a caricature intellectual. There are no drop-dead gorgeous women. And, in a near-surreal sight, as Preston tries to use a public phone, a woman, a tired stripper with fake angel wings, hassles him for the use of the cabin. She is played by the uncredited Jenna Elfman, who recently had a major part in Krippendorf's Tribe and is married to the nephew of composer Danny Elfman.

Obviously made for high-schoolers who may or may not get some mini-shocks of recognition, and full of references to current pop culture, CHW will survive only if its target audience shows up.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel