She's All That
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Freddie Prinze, Jr. (Zack Siler), Rachael Leigh Cook (Laney Boggs), Matthew Lillard (Brock Hudson), Paul Walker (Dean Sampson), Jodi Lyn O'Keefe (Taylor Vaughan), Kevin Pollak (Wayne Boggs), Anna Paquin (Mackenzie Siler), Kieran Culkin (Simon Boggs), Usher Raymond (Campus D.J.)
"She's All That" is "Pygmalion" set in a Southern California high school, with the student body president and all-around athlete trying to turn a gawky, bespectacled art student into the prom queen in six weeks. The set-up is thin and much of the film is composed of predictable, well-trodden material from the John Hughes oeuvre and its imitators of the mid-1980s (anybody remember "Can't Buy Me Love"? "Some Kind of Wonderful"? "Pretty in Pink"?).
However, that said, "She's All That" turns out to be a surprisingly likable, often witty teen comedy that rises just above its silly material through the engaging performances of its lead actors, Freddie Prinze, Jr. ("I Know What You Did Last Summer") as Zack Siler, the high school stud, and especially Rachael Leigh Cook as Laney Boggs, his work-in-progress. The reason the movie is not nearly as trite and disengaging as its premise suggests is that these two actors have charm, charisma, and they make Zack and Laney deeper and more interesting than their characters descriptions allow.
Unfortunately, these two relatively interesting teen characters are surrounded by hoards of Hollywood high school clichés, including Zack's ex-girlfriend, Taylor Vaughan (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe), an ultra-bitch who is so stuck-up and shallow that it is almost excruciating to imagine that anyone could stand to be in a room with her for more than five minutes. The same goes for Zack's friend, Paul Walker (Dean Sampson), a completely shameless lunk of an athlete who goads Zack into the bet of turning Laney into a prom queen.
The only trite character who's enjoyable to watch is Brock Hudson (Matthew Lillard), a wildly egocentric star of the MTV "reality" show "The Real World," for whom Taylor dumps Zack at the beginning of the film. How self-absorbed is Brock? When he gets a tattoo, he gets a picture of himself, and just in case no one gets it, he has the word "ME" printed right under it. Brock struts through most of the film, completely unaware of how ridiculous he is as a human being, and in him we can see first-time screenwriter R. Lee Fleming, Jr. taking serious potshots at the sheer banality of the whole MTV experience. The fact that director Robert Iscove--who has directed at least a dozen different TV shows and as many made-for-TV movies--turns the climax at the prom into a self-stylized music video is ambiguous as to whether he's adding to the parody or simply slipping into teen beat mode.
The majority of "She's All That" traces how Zack and Laney change as characters through their relationship together. It's a relationship that Zack pursues at first simply to make good on his bet, but in the process (surprise, surprise) both he and Laney develop real affection for each other, despite Laney's reluctance to come out of her shell. What's interesting is that the movie essentially shows them coming from their two polar extremes--his being shallow popularity represented best by his vacuous friends, and hers being the self-imposed artist-in-solitude facade to hide the fact that she's really lonely--to meet in the middle; and, it is in this middle that their real personalities actually exist. Zack doesn't care as much about being popular as he thinks he does, and Laney is not such the tormented spirit she likes to impose on herself.
Once again, none of this would come out if Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Rachael Leigh Cook weren't so likable. Prinze is charming and often allusive, and it's never doubtful that he could be the most popular guy in school because he combines athleticism with unconventional good looks and smarts (he has the fourth-highest GPA in the class).
The movie cheats with Laney's character because Cook is obviously a very attractive girl, looking somewhat like Winona Ryder in her early roles (think "Lucas"). Even with geeky glasses and frumpy, paint-splattered overalls, it's plain to see that Cook is beautiful in a big-eyed, frail kind of way--a lovely flower just waiting to bloom. That physical frailty works well with her character, especially in a scene where she and Taylor come nose-to-nose, and the first thing we notice is how much larger Taylor is, like a supermodel standing over a mouse.
Of course, don't get the wrong idea: I may be expounding more than is necessary on a teen comedy of this order, but "She's All That" is much better than you might expect. It has its moments both good and bad, and sometimes it pushes the line with its unrealistic vision of high school society (I remember certain people being popular in high school, but I don't ever remember any of them being referred to as an "institution"). Nevertheless, considering its limited genre, "She's All That" is not a bad addition, and it will hopefully give its talented young performers a chance to move on to bigger and brighter things.
©1999 James Kendrick