Published January 1, 1999
The old stories are always the best. When I saw the trailer for She’s All That, directed by Robert Iscove, I thought: here was a kiddies’ movie that, unlike the dreadful but depressingly popular Varsity Blues, I might not find it quite unbearable to sit through. First, it was a retelling of the Pygmalion story, every man’s secret fantasy just as Cinderella is every woman’s. Second, it was at the same time a Cinderella story! Or Cinderella- cum-ugly duckling. At any rate, there were plenty of very promising fairy-tale resonances to it. And third, the Cinderella in the case, the impossibly non-ugly duckling, was the heart-stoppingly lovely Rachael [sic] Leigh Cook. How bad, I wondered, could it be?
Unfortunately, pretty bad. The archetype here becomes mere cliché. In fact, everything dissolves in cliché. We even get, God help us, a heaping helping of the Dead Poets Society nonsense about a poor boy being forced to go to an ivy league college, in this case Dartmouth, because his dad went there. Oh please! They don’t even try to make it new. As if that weren’t bad enough, the boy in question, Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr.), is depicted as finding himself in performance art and the facile political leftism, learned from watching CNN, that he picks up from his Galatea, Laney Boggs (Miss Cook). Laney is the kind of girl who wakes up her little brother, Simon (Kieran Culkin) by saying that “there are children in Mexico who have already been up for three hours making clothes for corporate America.”
I don’t know too many would-be Pygmalions who would be enthralled by such a Galatea. It is a typical Hollywood conceit to equate personal authenticity with left wing opinions and to contrast both with money and social ambition. Zack is every girl’s dreamboat in his California high school, but his girlfriend, Taylor Vaughan (Jodi Lynn O’Keefe) dumps him for Brock Hudson (Matthew Lillard) who is, humorously, someone from “The Real World.” Not, it should be needless to add, the real real world, but the TV show on MTV, where he is “the dyslexic volleyball guy.” Taylor asks Zack: “Did you honestly think I was going to leave for college still dating you? Oh, my God! You did! That’s so sweet.”
But Zack as Big Man on Campus responds to the snub with a bit of bravado: he bets his friend and fellow soccer star, Dean (Paul Walker), that he can take any girl that he, Dean, chooses and turn her into a prom queen. Laney, on whom the choice falls, is disguised only by glasses, no make-up and unfashionable clothes and hairstyle, but, not too surprisingly, she comes from the wrong side of the tracks. Her dad (Kevin Pollack), is a pool man and this is apparently the lowest of the low in their affluent neighborhood—even though the pool man himself has a pool. Anyway, all the rich girls look down their noses at her. Moreover, her mother died when she was very small, and ever since then she has been emotionally closed up. Politics has become a way of avoiding human contact. When Zack asks her out she is immediately suspicious: “What is this, some kind of new dork-outreach program?”
Zack has to work for the first time to attract a girl, and soon he is interested in Laney for her own sake. He becomes friends with her little brother, and his own younger sister (Anna Paquin) brings about the inevitable makeover that turns the duckling to a swan. Of course, her rival for prom queen is the needlessly nasty Taylor, who is not only heartless to Zack but also a snob and a bitch. Even her friends don’t like her. To Laney she says, “To everyone who matters, you’re vapor; you’re spam: a waste of perfectly good yearbook space.” Later she heaps scorn on her campaign for queen: “You didn’t think you became popular for real did you? Oh, you did! That’s so sweet.” Boo! Hiss!
Of course, Laney finds out about the bet and a lot of pretty predictable things happen, but the final disposition of the lovers is lacking in any real romance or tenderness. Zack says he has now found himself, and his inner performance-artist, thanks to her, while she, newly empowered, says only that (rather improbably) “I feel just like Julia Roberts — except for that whole hooker thing.” Is it feminism which won’t allow a more satisfying ending or is it just incompetence? You be the judge.