Whatever It Takes
Screenplay : Mark Schwahn
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Shane West (Ryan), Marla Sokoloff (Maggie), Jodi Lyn O'Keefe (Ashley), James Franco (Chris), Aaron Paul (Floyd), Richard Schiff (P.E. Teacher), Julia Sweeney (Kate Woodman), Manu Intiraymi (Dunleavy), Colin Hanks (Cosmo), Kip Pardue (Harris), Scott Vickaryous (Stu)
It is of little surprise that, in the recent rush to release as many teen-oriented comedies as possible over the last few years, filmmakers have almost completely dropped any notion of trying to create teenage characters that reflect, in any appreciable form, actual human beings.
Granted, teen comedies do not constitute a genre replete with fascinating characters, but the potential is there and it has been filled before--just look at "Slums of Beverly Hills" (1998) and "Election" (1999), two recent comedies that primarily dealt with teenagers that were also wonderful character studies. Even John Hughes' teen movies of the 1980s, despite being critically dismissed as adolescent fluff, at least bore the distinction of having characters that resembled actual human beings. Even in his most fantastically ridiculous scenarios--such as two outcasts literally creating their dream woman on a computer in "Weird Science" (1985)--Hughes still created teen characters that lived and breathed--who were recognizable as both types and as people, and who were therefore sympathetic.
The same cannot be said for "Whatever It Takes," which features a cast of characters who are either too dull to care about or are exaggerated to the point of being ludicrous. "Whatever It Takes" is also the latest addition to that quickly thinning teen subgenre of movies that update classic texts for the adolescent set. While "Clueless" (1995) updated "Emma," "She's All That" (1999) updated "Pygmalion," and "10 Things I Hate About You" (1999) updated "The Taming of the Shrew," "Whatever It Takes" sets its sights on "Cyrano de Bergerac."
Here, the high school Cyrano is a regular kid named Ryan (Shane West) who has a crush on the senior sexpot, Ashley (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe). Ryan's best friend and next-door neighbor is an attractive, but shy girl named Maggie (Marla Sokoloff) who is sought after by the dim-witted school jock, Chris (James Franco). Chris happens to be Ashley's cousin, so he knows everything about her. Therefore, he and Ryan strike a deal: Ryan will help Chris get together with Maggie by telling him all about her interests (which include J.D. Salinger and The Beastie Boys) so he can act like they have something in common, and Chris will help Ryan get together with Ashley by telling him how to exploit her hidden insecurities.
Of course, it is obvious from the opening moments that Ryan and Maggie belong together, and it will take the entirety of the movie and any number of contrived scenes before they finally figure out what the audience has known all along. This exact story arc has worked before in John Hughes' somewhat over-dramatic but much more effective 1987 film "Some Kind of Wonderful." Here, it is mostly aggravating because it requires smart characters to act like idiots.
The script, written by Mark Schwahn, is transparent in all the most painful ways. Even before it is "revealed," it is plainly obvious that Ashley is an absurdly stuck-up bimbo without an original thought in her head (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe is becoming an expert at playing bitchy bimbos, since she played the exact same role last year in "She's All That"). It is also just as obvious that Ryan, being a kid of some intelligence and decency, will quickly realize that beauty without substance is a dead end. What is somewhat surprising is just how pathetic Ashley really is, and the lengths to which she goes in an attempt to win Ryan back (apparently she's never been dumped before, and therefore has no idea how to handle it).
Schwahn gets the most mileage out of mocking Ashley and Chris by making them look ridiculous. Both Ashley and Chris are consistently portrayed as insipid airheads who are both mean and dumb (when asked by Maggie which of Salinger's "Nine Stories" is his favorite, Chris replies "The long one?"). Therefore, they are both subjected to carefully constructed humiliations at the end the end of the movie; at some level, "Whatever It Takes" is really just a revenge fantasy for outcasts.
This is not to say that "Whatever It Takes" is all bad. The movie is so patently ridiculous that it begins to play like a cartoon, where nothing can or should or could be taken seriously. There are a few genuinely funny moments involving Ryan's bizarre best friend, Floyd (Aaron Paul), who idolizes a long-gone prankster named Virgil Doolittle who (legend has it) stole the neck off a statue of the high school's dignified namesake. Julia Sweeney also has some good scenes as Ryan's mother, who is also the school nurse and therefore has the job of discussing safe sex to an assembly in the school auditorium (it doesn't take much imagination to see how humiliating that would be for a high school senior, especially when the discussion involves a six-foot penis as a visual aid).
Overall, though, "Whatever It Takes" is generally forgettable. By the time it climaxes at the prom (once again, I ask, is it conceivable for a teen film not to climax at the prom?) and "borrows" a joke from none other than "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) involving someone opening the gymnasium floor so that all the dancers fall into the pool underneath, the patience and good humor of most viewers will have been worn out. The film's overall tone is similar to how the story views the vast majority of teens: vapid, shallow, dingy, but still vaguely amusing. In the end, "Whatever It Takes" doesn't amount to much at all, but what can you expect from a movie whose opening credits dissolve over a stop-motion sequence of dancing make-up?
Copyright © 2000 James Kendrick