Can’t Hardly Wait: Trying to Capture Spirit of High School Movies

A mediocre attempt to recapture the exuberant magic and candid portraiture of such high-school movie classics as American Graffiti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dazed and Confused, Can’t Hardly Wait, Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont’s feature directorial debut, is a loud and boisterous comedy whose action is entirely set during an interminably long graduation night.

An extremely appealing and energetic cast, headed by up-and-coming TV and film stars Jennifer Love Hewitt (“Party of Five,” I Know What You Did Last Summer) and Ethan Embry (That Thing You Do! White Squall), compensates only up to a point for an unevenly scripted, roughly directed comedy that only partially succeeds in conveying the excitement, fear and confusion of that momentous night, when adolescence ends and young adulthood begins. Pandering to its target audience by recycling cliches and stereotypes associated with this uniquely American genre, pic should benefit from its timely release and the fact that it’s the first of half a dozen promised school movies to hit the big screen in the near future.

Neophyte directors Kaplan and Elfont can’t decide whether to situate their film in the tradition of the more poignant and socially resonant American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused, or simply to rehash the conventions of frivolous party movies like Porky’s, which revolve around escapades and pranks of fun-loving, sex-obsessed youths. Muddled blend of music, which includes Barry Manilow, 80s disco hits, and various 90s pop tunes also doesn’t help to ground the film solidly in its contempo milieu (despite allusions to Brad Pitt). Result is a comedy that’s neither particularly authentic in its lingo or concerns, nor universal enough to appeal to broader segments of the audience other than those immediately depicted onscreen.

As soon as the painful graduation ceremony is over at Huntington Hills High, preparations begin for the real festivity–a big bash at the private house of an hysterical hostess (Michelle Brookhurst), whose sole role is to protest the carpet stains, petty thefts and lewd graffiti caused by her guests. First reel is frustratingly weak and excessively raucous, as Lloyd Ahern’s restless camera covers a multi-racial celebration of an assortment of every bizarre and imaginable type: jocks, geeks, prom queens, bimbos, nerds, headbangers and a garden variety of misfits.

Aspiring writer Preston (Embry), about to leave for a Boston college the next day, has been in love with Amanda (Hewitt), the beautiful class knockout, ever since they met in freshman year. A brief flashback depicts Amanda’s grand entrance into the classroom and how Preston missed his opportunity to ingratiate himself when a more aggressive classmate, Mike (Peter Facinelli) quickly rose to the occasion.

Four years later, Preston’s tormented infatuation with Amanda is even more intense. Holding a precious letter he has written for her, he decides to seize his final opportunity and proclaim love. The timing seems ripe as Amanda has just been dumped by her arrogant b.f. Mike. Their breakup, which seems to concern every student at the party, is one of the few dramatic events in a rather plotless movie.

It takes 40 long minutes for the first quiet, meaningful scene to take place, in which Amanda discloses a severe identity crisis: “If I’m not Mike’s girlfriend, who am I” Indeed, pic improves considerably as soon as it centers on its half a dozen protagonists, enabling greater emotional involvement in the proceeding that was missing up to that point. Large sections are set in the bathroom, where two misfits, Denise (Lauren Ambrose) and former childhood friend Kenny (Seth Green), are locked and need to unload four years’ worth of emotional baggage.

Sporadically, the writing is sharp, as in a touching scene in which Mike, who broke up with Amanda so that he could be free to pursue his sexually-charged fantasies with college women, gets disenchanted by an older student, Amanda’s Cousin Ron (Erik Palladino), regarding the reality that awaits him in college–“guys like us are dime a dozen.”

As expected, there are misunderstandings, with Amanda and Preston crossing paths throughout the evening before they finally face each other. With obvious echoes to Cameron Crowe’s far superior Say Anything and its unlikely romance between two opposites, last act clears the obstacles between Amanda and Preston. True to form, predictable finale will rejoice audiences, who may find themselves rooting for the central couple almost by default as there are not many sympathetic or likeable characters around.

Pacing in first segments is frantic for no apparent reason other than to conceal the surface writing, which is mostly boiled to one-liners that are not always funny. Staging of later sequences is more sensitive, helping to bring out some acute observations in the more intimate interactions.

Aside from the two charming leads, other thesps hitting high points include the attractive Facinelli as the childish, self-absorbed Mike; Korsmo as a sci-fi loving, honor-roll geek William; Green as a white pretending to be a “homeboy”; and especially red-haired Ambrose as Preston’s sensitive, introverted confidante who carries more than one chip on her shoulders.

With the notable exception of Mark (Boogy Nights) Bridges’ multicolored costumes, tech credits are just passable, which may be a reflection of the budget. It’s unfair to blame Michael Jablow for the abrupt, ungraceful editing, which probably derives from the filmmakers’ lack of experience of how to structure and modulate their tale to an advantage.