"She's All That" takes the hoary old story of jock-meets-nerd, jock-loses-nerd, jock-gets-nerd and infuses it with real charm and humor, thanks to some clever writing and staging and a winning cast of young players.
A high-school coming-of-age romance that combines the idealized puppy love of "Pretty in Pink" with the knowing sophistication of "Heathers," this generic teen flick brings added value to the genre while it trots out characters and plot points that are as predictable as zits, mood swings and clueless parents.
Speaking of which, this zippy little comedy owes another considerable debt to "Clueless," especially in its sendup of Southern California culture and the vapid ways of its high school population. But "She's All That" deserves credit, not only for choosing its references well, but for integrating them into something fresh and all its own.
Freddie Prinze Jr. plays Zack, an overachieving senior class president who has just been dumped by his girlfriend Taylor (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe). During spring break in Florida, Taylor made the acquaintance of Brock Hudson (Matthew Lillard), a dyslexic volleyball player on MTV's "The Real World"; Taylor returns to California sporting a tattoo and a major attitude. In revenge, Zack bets a buddy that he can take the biggest zero in class; do, like, you know, the Pygmalion thing; and coach her all the way to prom queen, unseating the shoo-in Taylor.
His victim is Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook), a moody would-be artist who wears overalls and glasses and, when she's at work, a hat that looks like a falafel sandwich. Much of "She's All That" centers on Zack's pursuit of Laney, who can't believe that the most popular guy in class would be pursuing her ("What is this, some kind of dork outreach program?" she asks him).
Zack's fruitless wooing results in some of the movie's funniest scenes. Director Robert Iscove, making his feature debut here, choreographs an amusing parody of performance art featuring a dancer in jockey shorts and some very bad face paint, and Kevin Pollak, as Laney's father, steals a scene in which he blithely plays "Jeopardy!" along with the TV while a soccer team that Zack has hired cleans the house around him. (The director's background in dance and theater is clear throughout "She's All That," especially at the prom, which features a spectacular dance number.)
"She's All That" is peppered with quieter jokes, not the least of which is one of Laney's fellow art students mentioning Van Gogh, Pissaro and Basquiat in the same breath. And, being a teen comedy, it has more than its share of coarse, crude humor.
By far the most hilarity comes at the hands of Lillard, who is fast becoming a one-man reason to see any movie he's in. This brilliant young comedian makes the most of Brock's stoned-out egoism, as well as Iscove's sneakily funny parodies of "The Real World," in which he fumes at his roommates with flawless petulance, not to mention petty flatulence. His improvised dance at a pre-prom party is scenery-chewing at its hammy best.
All in this game cast play their parts with brio and conviction, a real feat when they're asked to speak lines like, "Did Dean ask you to the prom?!" with sincerity.
Aside from Lillard, the stand-out here is Cook, who plays a new breed of post-feminist Cinderella with a convincing mix of seriousness and vulnerability (although just once, it would be nice if Cinderella could keep her glasses on and still be beautiful). With her doe eyes and peaches-and-organic-yogurt complexion, Cook resembles a young Winona Ryder (if that's possible), right down to the appealing blend of sweetness and self-assurance.
This promising actress makes Laney entirely convincing as the kind of heroine a gallant knight longs to save, even as she manages to save herself quite nicely on her own.
'She's All That'
Starring Freddie Prinze Jr., Rachael Leigh Cook, Matthew Lillard, Kevin Pollak, Kieran Culkin
Directed by Robert Iscove
Released by Miramax Films
Rated PG-13 (sexual content, crude humor, brief strong language and teen drinking)
Running time: 97 minutes
Sun score: * * *
Pub Date: 1/29/99