The anonymous scribes who toil away at the Internet Movie Database have done my job for me. The plot outline for “John Tucker Must Die” reads: “Three ex-girlfriends of a serial cheater set up their former lover to fall for the new girl in town so they can watch him get his heart broken.” Why spend paragraphs telling you what the movie’s about when that one sentence tells you everything?
Sure, the movie, which by the way is a snarky and modestly enjoyable teen flick, WANTS to be about more than that. The new girl, the blandly pretty Kate (Brittany Snow), is new because her hot mom (Jenny McCarthy) keeps dating losers and moving to a new town every time a relationship goes belly-up. Kate herself allegedly undergoes a transformation in personality while hanging out with the three spurned lovers. So, you know, there are issues to be dealt with.
But the real point is to borrow from “Mean Girls” and “Bring It On” and even “The Longest Yard” (remember the gag where they secretly give a guy estrogen and he starts acting girly?), all in the service of this very basic high school plot. This one’s as old as drama itself.
The cad in question is, of course, John Tucker (Jesse Metcalfe), who must not die — curse you, black-comedy title! — but must rather suffer embarrassment and shame for his crimes. His specific misdeed is dating three girls at once, all from different cliques so they’re guaranteed not to talk to each other and discover what’s going on. Heather (Ashanti) is head cheerleader, Carrie (Arielle Kebbel) is a gung-ho school journalist, and Beth (Sophia Bush) is a militant vegan; John has thought this out carefully.
The girls do finally have a conversation, the truth comes out, and Kate is befriended and put up to the task of wooing John and breaking his heart. The film hints at her having ethical qualms about this, but the fact is I couldn’t tell the “new” Kate from the “old” one, despite her mom’s insistence that associating with these three vipers has changed her. A couple more minutes spent establishing a personality for Kate in Act One would have helped provide contrast for her disposition in Act Three.
TV scribe Jeff Lowell’s screenplay takes a stab at another conflict, too: Kate is actually in love with John Tucker’s brother, Scott (Penn Badgley), who is less awesome and less idolized. This makes it awkward when she suddenly starts dating John, but it’s forced awkwardness. Why does the movie need the Scott character? Isn’t it conflict enough that her affection for John is a charade?
On the other hand, the film delivers a few smartly funny lines amid the teenage trash-talking. In reference to Beth, Kate says, “Being a vegan teen activist is usually code for ‘easy.'” And in describing John, Carrie says, “He’s a statue wrapped in a painting in a frame made of muscles.” Anything approaching that level of savvy is going the extra mile in a teen comedy.
So it’s not very original, and the ending is convoluted (it involves Carrie having some very impressive access to video footage of all of Kate and John’s moments together), and much of what happens is unlikely, to say the least. But it’s not grating the way many of its genre are, and the pandering it does to its teenage female audience seems good-natured, not cynical. (“Look at these cute boys!” the movie seems to say. “We like cute boys, too!”) It’s good for a few laughs. And it has a great title.
B- (1 hr., 27 min.; )