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She's All That

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 29 January 1999

  Directed by Robert Iscove

Starring Freddie Prinze Jr., Rachle Leigh Cook,
Matthew Lilliard, Paul Walker, Jodi Lyn O’Keefe,
Kevin Pollack, Kieran Culkin with Anna Paquin,
Tim Matheson, and Alexis Arquette

Screenplay by R. Lee Fleming, Jr.

He’s a hunk. She’s a geek. He’s sweet and smart and terribly popular. She’s dark and morose and a social pariah. On a bet, class president, honor student, soccer of the football team Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) dedicates himself to turning angry young artist Laney Boggs (Rachel Leigh Cook) into the next prom queen. Could true love be far off?

sat-1.jpg (13419 bytes)From the beginning of the film Zack is a too-good-to-be-true high school hero. He hangs with the cool kids and dates the frosty school beauty queen, but the fact is he’s really a nice guy. He talks to the other kids in the school (so forgets a name, it could happen to anyone), poo-poos his reputation, and acts like none of that social brinkmanship really matters to him… until he’s dumped by the imperious Taylor Vaughan (a chilly Jodi Lyn O’Keefe whose nose never once drops from her perpetual snooty snub), the most popular girl in school and his steady since freshman year. His wounded ego prompts him to what must be his only callously calculated act: he bets his sleazy, jealous buddy Dean (Paul Walker, every bit the self absorbed jock) that he can turn any girl into the next prom queen, and Dean chooses Laney Boggs (Rachel Leigh Cook), school misfit and social drop-out. She’ll have nothing to do with Zack, preferring to hang with her one buddy Jesse (Usher Raymond) and discuss toxic waste and the decimation of the rain forests. With her severe hairdo, baggy clothes, and a confrontational attitude this dark artist chick would be enormously attractive in college but in a status conscious Los Angeles High school defined by MTV she’s just a little too weird.

And speaking of MTV, Taylor’s new man of the moment is me generation poster boy Brock Hudson (an outlandishly stuck-on-himself Matthew Lillard), a celebrity whose only claim to fame is a stint on "The Real World," which he was kicked off by his roommates. Brock is a social climbing coup for Laney but what she has to put up with for the fleeting cultural glamour: endless reruns of "The Real World," life of the party shenanigans, conversations that never stray far from Brock’s favorite topic (himself). He’s the first person Laney’s met more egocentric than she!

You can probably see where this is going. Laney is slowly but fitfully won over by the genuinely sweet Zack who has more going for him that she realizes. A date at a performance art theater actually scores points when Zack is cajoled into the spotlight and improvises a neat bit of theatrics with a hackey sack and mantra. Zack, naturally, begins to fall for Laney, who proves to be just as sweet under her serious hide and a gorgeous babe under her spec and paint speckled smocks. Taylor wants Zack back and sets out to humiliate Laney, who to her wrath has becomes the underdog favorite for Prom Queen (losers and geeks and social misfits throughout the school rally around her like a folk hero). And naturally the truth of the bet gets out and yadda yadda yadda.

Promoted as some sort of teen "Pygmalion," She’s All That isn’t nearly so ambitious, or particularly insightful. It more resembles the dozens of Ugly Duckling tales of the past few decades where teen outsiders find their confidence and status conscious popular kids learn that surface features and shallow values are only worth the foundation their built on. And like most of those tales it takes the easy way out. Cute-as-a-button Cook is prettier under her severe hairdo and paint-spattered smocks than most of the dolled up campus dolls – it’s not going to take much to turn her into a campus beauty. And like so many of those films, after spending so much of film showing how values and compassion are more important that good looks, it’s all swept under the rug as the Ugly Duckling turns heads sweeping into the Senior Prom as an adorable, gorgeous Swan. John Water’s inclusive Hairspray looks better with each passing year.

What She’s All That has going for it is a director struggling to make something more out of this. Robert Iscove, previously best know for his recent TV movie Cinderella with Brandi and Whitney Huston, tries hard to invest the familiarity with a playful sense of fun and inventiveness. The film’s flashback to Taylor’s Spring Break fling plays with storytelling conventions as Taylor and Zack walk through the scene, like a Gen-X take on Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Laney’s family is a hoot, especially dad Kevin Pollock whose deadpan face and monotone delivery makes his ridiculously off-base answers while watching "Jeopardy" the funniest scene in the film – and he’s in the background. In fact, the best moments of the film are background bits and tossed-off gags. Even Zack’s smart, no bullshit sister (played by Anna Paquin), ostensibly the moral center of the film, is given few scenes to really show herself. Sometimes he has too much fun, as with the out-of-nowhere group dance to Fat Boy Slim’s "The Rockafeller Skank," where a dance floor turns into a perfectly choreographed pattern of teens matching steps with the precision of the Rockettes. Looks great, but where did it come from? More importantly, what did it accomplish?

If you’re a high school kid looking for a fun way spend an afternoon, this might be the film for you. (Unlikely you’re cruising this review site but who am I to stereotype the audience?) As far as teen films go this is fine, full of great looking actors (who, for the most part, can actually act) filling out parts ranging from almost human to a few steps from cartoonish and invested with some genuinely clever bits of comedy squeezed between the familiar conflicts and comic situations. There’s nothing really wrong with She’s All That, just too little going that’s actually right. In the parlance of American Bandstand it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, but that hardly separates it from the rest of the pack.

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