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Can't Hardly Wait is as vacuous as its characters

By Zak Weisfeld

JUNE 22, 1998:  The '80s are rarely lauded except by wistful supply-siders longing for the halcyon days of skyrocketing national debt and a president with really great hair. But there are those among us who remember the '80s fondly for an entirely different reason: the high school romantic comedy.

Though angst, growing up, and teen romance have grabbed audiences since the Bard first saw the box-office possibilities of Romeo and Juliet, it was in the 1980s that the genre achieved its greatest flowering. Every year brought another stunner from a group of teen movie auteurs determined to reach out and ease us through our hormone-induced romantic writhings with comedy, sex, and even genuine affection.

From 1982 with Amy Heckerling's breakthrough Fast Times at Ridgemont High (the Casablanca of teen movies—I think kids are still repeating Spicoli's lines) to 1989 and Cameron Crowe's moving Say Anything, the '80s teen movies were a breeding ground for new talent. It was an era that spawned Crowe, Tom Cruise, John Hughes, John Cusack, Anthony Michael Hall, Phoebe Cates, Robert Downey, Jr., James Spader, and yes, Molly Ringwald, many of whom can still get their agents to take their calls.

The question is, what happened to the '90s? And what cultural excuse is there for a movie like Can't Hardly Wait? (The title is so desperate for ridicule that it's hardly worth the trouble.) Perhaps the whole concept of coming of age has become outmoded. Maybe the impending millennium has caused studio heads to avert their eyes from the plight of those poor bastards in 12th grade just getting ready to start their lives only to have them snuffed out by Deep Impact or Armageddon. Regardless, it is obvious that no one is prepared to make a movie about teenagers with actual characters or insight—or in the case of Wait, with even a vain attempt at a plot.

In fact, Can't Hardly Wait seems hardly to be a movie at all. Instead, it feels more like an ad for a K-tel teen angst music sampler or a rather haphazard collection of previews from movies that weren't quite good enough to release on their own.

What there is of the movie is set against the backdrop of a graduation party and centers—well, centers is the wrong word—drifts aimlessly about the story of the dreamily romantic Preston Meyers (Ethan Embry) and his last chance to make contact with the now-single prom queen Amanda (Jennifer Love Hewitt).

But who is Preston Meyers? And why does he yearn so for Amanda, except for her perilously obvious physical attributes? We know from his yearbook photo that he wants to be a writer (though from his prose I'd say we'll next be hearing from him on the inside of a Hallmark card)—and from his thrift store clothes that he dresses like one—but beyond that, nothing. So vague and unfinished is Preston that it is doubtful even the masterful Cusack could have managed to make him charming or interesting. Instead, staring into the face of Preston is like looking into the vacant eyes of an extremely subdued MTV VJ. In truth, there's something monstrous about it, a diaphonous mask stretched loosely across the horrors of the void.

Rarely, however, have a cinema couple been more suited to each other than Preston and Amanda. They go together like salt and salt, or vanilla and vanilla. From her yearbook we know that she was the prom queen, but beyond that she has all the rich character of a saltine. At one point Amanda even goes so far as to ask this question of herself: Who is she now that she's no longer the jock's girlfriend? But she is either unwilling or unable to hear the answer—which is nothing.

Given the depth of the characters and the hold they've got over the audience, it is hardly surprising that the unavoidable meeting of Amanda and Preston has all the heat and pathos of a Coke commercial...no, it has less.

Surrounding the soft, white-noise hum of Wait's central romance are a number of subplots—all of them better and more entertaining than the main plot and all of them clichéd and poorly done. The only exception to this cinematic GAP is the story of The Bitter Sarcastic Girl and the Trying-Too-Hard-To-Be-Hip Boy. Their uncomfortable union is the closest thing to humor or a heart that Wait can manage.

There's something deeply sad about Can't Hardly Wait—with its lame attempts at pop-cultural hipness, its skulking political correctness (though the use of the word fag did get a big laugh in the theater), and empty safety messages (lots of drinking and sex, but no driving and plenty of condoms). the movie exists in a nightmare suburban no-place populated by kids who challenge neither themselves, each other, nor the audience—the first cinematic awakening of the Ritalin generation.

It's enough to make one misty-eyed for David Lee Roth.


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