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By Michael Atkinson
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By Alan Scherstuhl
Even the press kit is up front about it: Whatever It Takes is less a film than a product of marketing research and demographic considerations. It might as well have been written on a bar graph, so fetishistic is it about making sure it appeals to teens and their parents -- hence, the setting (high school) and the soundtrack (the film's climax is built around Modern English's "I Melt With You," around which Valley Girl's Big Moment was created two decades ago). Mark Schwahn didn't really write Whatever It Takes; he more or less assembled it out of spare parts, pop-culture detritus, the best and worst leftovers available to a first-time writer on a school-lunch budget. Says so right there in the press notes: "[Producer Paul] Schiff and his Vice President of Development/Co-Producer Matt Berenson collaborated with Schwahn to create a screenplay that would attract a broad range of moviegoers without losing the essence of the original idea." The original idea in question is a remake of Cyrano de Bergerac. This brain trust probably thinks using the English language is a novel concept.
Yet, almost shockingly, Whatever It Takes is not an unlikable movie, despite its best efforts to the contrary. If you didn't know better -- and you do, since you have been alive on this planet long enough -- you'd almost think it's a teen-genre parody, a recycling-to-revamp of every cliche known to the medium. This movie so brazenly flaunts its lack of originality, it plays almost like an episode of Police Squad! -- down to the It's a Wonderful Life gag that nearly closes the film, when the gym floor opens during senior prom to swallow the students in the swimming pool beneath the hardwood.
Perhaps Whatever It Takes is bearable only because, unlike the recent spate of teen films, it's so breezy it barely even registers. It tosses off half-witted jokes with such numbskull abandon, the whole affair has that wink-wink feel; you never know if you're in on the gag or choking on it. She's All That played like John Hughes by way of the WB Network (Freddie Prinze Jr. has such small-screen charm); Can't Hardly Wait dismantled the genre to its barest essentials (screwing and vomiting at the grad-night throwdown). But Whatever It Takesconcocts its dishrag stew from a genre's entire history: It's a movie for children, their parents and their parents.
Even the film's star, Shane West (playing Ryan, the buddy to one gal but in love with another, who is allegedly prettier), looks like an amalgam: He's part Doogie Howser, part Jeff Tweedy, a kid whose birth certificate was printed on a bar code. That the prettiest girl in high school (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe, essentially reprising her role from She's All That) doesn't fancy West's character is almost unfathomable: He's Frankenstein's corn-fed monster, the poster boy for Perfect Male. And, of course, he's also the Moron, so in love with O'Keefe's beautiful, insecure wretch Ashley he can't see the Perfect Female beside him -- quite literally, since Ryan nearly shares a bedroom with next-door neighbor and lifelong friend Maggie (The Practice's Marla Sokoloff). Indeed, their bedroom balconies nearly touch; after a while, you begin to wonder how two people as lonely and dateless as Ryan and Maggie haven't screwed around just to, ya know, see what it's like.
It all gets so Cyrano when the school's star jock Chris (James Franco, who looks like living Claymation) decides he wants Maggie -- and that Ryan has to help him, if Ryan wants to score with Ashley. So Ryan begins sending Maggie e-mails "from" Chris and feeding him words with which to woo her from beneath an auditorium stage; Chris helps Ryan win Ashley by informing him she loves nothing more than to be insulted (she's a very kinky girl). But the Cyrano angle is just a distraction, a desperation move; Steve Martin's amiable Roxanne was a word-for-word rewrite of the original, by comparison. But then, what's the grumble, when you can see the ending before the opening credits finish: Maggie and Ryan were made for each other. They both love J.D. Salinger, the Eels, Monty Python and Casablanca (they're teens entering their early thirties) -- and whenever Ryan launches into "I Melt With You" on his accordion, Maggie turns to goo. It was Ryan's parents' song; now, it's theirs, too. (And a generation passes the torch -- next up: "A Million Miles Away.")
It's as though director David Raynr (whose only other film is the unspeakable Trippin') and his collective of writers and marketers have turned inside-out the entire John Hughes oeuvre. Whole scenes have been swiped from Sixteen Candles; you half-expect Anthony Michael Hall to show up as someone's dad. And, yes, at times, the movie is as charming as a mugging. Twice, a sight gag involves a six-foot-tall penis, brandished by the school's head nurse (ex-Saturday Night Live cast member Julia Sweeney) as a sex-ed prop. But, somehow, you must admire the research and temerity of a film that dares to rip off It's a Wonderful Life so blatantly. Some call it homage; others, parody. A kind man might even say it's...smart.
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