Movie review: “Not Another Teen Movie” (2001)

NATM

“And I’ll bet that you lose that bet…but that in doing so, you’ll learn an even more valuable lesson, and win. (pause) In life, I mean.”

The late Roger Ebert lamented, early and often, the inadequacies of grading movies on any sort of scale. Essentially, art is so subjective that it has a built-in natural resistance to easy criticism, and the labels we use to compensate can be obscure, imprecise or reductive, even with the best of intentions behind them. Ebert’s print reviews, which are absolutely required reading for anyone seeking more than a cursory knowledge of 20th Century film, followed a “star” model, with four being the highest possible awarded rating and zero the lowest. On television, of course, Ebert was never granted the ideal space or agency to regard a movie as much more than a simple up/down vote (cue his famous thumb), but in print his muse and talent ranged far and wide, requiring a more nuanced scale to render the final verdict. Ebert found the star format frustrating and limiting, a necessary evil of sorts, and since adopting it as the basis for my own grades on this blog, I’ve come to understand a bit from whence he came. Just because his rough “thumbs to stars” equivalency makes a three-star review the threshold for a positive recommendation shouldn’t imply that films that miss that mark are necessarily uninteresting, or unworthy. Indeed, many of his most interesting takes are on the films that fell just short, be they particularly ambitious failures or surprising elevations of outwardly suspect material.

Ebert’s astute concern that assigning a rating to a piece of art risks devaluing it hits the skids immediately when confronted with the likes of Not Another Teen Movie, a crude, heroically overachieving satire of two decades’ worth of high school/coming of age films that is 100% artificial preservative, however deftly composed, 0% natural sweetener, and exactly 0% art. This puts me in a tight spot as a reviewer. Should I deride Not Another Teen Movie, the very definition of a 2.5-star film in my view, as obvious, scatological, and proudly, unfailingly puerile – for it is often all those things and more – or should I expound instead on what great fun I find large chunks of the movie to be, a fact at which I am as surprised as anyone? I opt for the latter, because no matter how many problems NATM might suffer from, genuineness and confidence are not among them. Like genre cornerstone/lighthouse Airplane!, its strategy is to throw so many jokes at the wall that it is inevitable some will stick. What set Airplane! apart, of course. was the ridiculously high percentage of jokes that stuck. NATM cannot hope to approach that kind of batting average, but more than enough jokes land to provide a fine, funny, slightly uncomfortable time at the movies.

Unlike Airplane!, which augmented its narrow outward focus by integrating incongruous but hilarious bits based on Jaws and Saturday Night Fever, among others, Not Another Teen Movie has the full run of a genre that, rife with histrionic cliché and self-importance, is practically begging for a thorough comeuppance. With its appealing cast, comparatively careful construction, brisk pace, and respectable ratio of hits to misses, Not Another Teen Movie is a success not just as a spoof of high school movies (therefore ably representing not one but two fairly disreputable genres) but as a comedy overall. It’s always easier to be a pleasant surprise when the viewer has few to no expectations, but can the surprise hold up over repeat viewings? It’s an elusive quality, but to me, there’s just something here. The list of films explicitly parodied here includes not only late ‘90s heavyweights like American Pie, She’s All That (from which NATM lifts its “vain jock bets he can turn a unique rebel into prom queen” plot wholesale), 10 Things I Hate About You and Can’t Hardly Wait, but also darker outliers like Cruel Intentions and Varsity Blues, and, delightfully, classic John Hughes movies like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. I hadn’t even seen some of the latter movies referenced, and still had no trouble following the plot or registering the jokes. There’s a universality to the teenage experience that tends to reduce these films to shorthand. Among the differences between Not Another Teen Movie and so many of the other spoofs the new millennium has belched forth, is that its creators both know and care enough to get the little details right.*

*For but one example, preppy party planner Preston Wasserstein actually lives in Ferris Bueller’s old house. Jake Ryan’s old house, so memorably trashed in Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles”, is a mere four doors down the road. The negligible distance between the two sets up one of my favorite jokes in the movie.

Released in 2001, during the period where the mega-successful, post-ZAZ horror spoof Scary Movie was already blighting the landscape with increasingly coarse and unfunny progeny, it seems tempting to lump NATM into that same sort of lowest common denominator dog parade. I cannot deny the surface similarities are striking, right down to the inclusion of the word “movie” in the title (though NATM was always intended to be read with multiple inflections, and attendant meanings to each). There surely exists enough subtlety, wit, and clear affection for/knowledge of the genre being parodied that NATM manages to escape (albeit messily) the larger new millennium spoof genre, which would devolve in the coming years from a bustling cottage industry into a combination black hole/hellscape under the opportunistic stewardship of shamelessly pandering penis joke enthusiasts Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (Epic/Date/Disaster Movie, et al). The distance between Airplane! and Meet the Spartans can be most accurately measured in light years, and on that continuum, I’d say Not Another Teen Movie fits comfortably enough into the lower third of the upper half (between, say, Naked Gun 2 ½ and Hot Shots!). It is certainly not superior parody on the level of early Mel Brooks or classic ZAZ**, but it also exists on a much higher plane than the lucrative bottom feeders whose coattails it was clearly, and ironically, riding.

**ZAZ=writer-director triumvirate Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, who took the slapstick spoof mantle from Mel Brooks at the beginning of the 1980s and ran with it, creating in the process some of the funniest movies ever, including the original “Airplane!”, “The Naked Gun”, the pitch black comedy “Ruthless People” and the utterly brilliant but relatively unsung “Top Secret!”, which spoofed Cold War spy thrillers and Elvis Presley musicals simultaneously.

The differences are small but telling. Though hardly cultured, NATM’s approach is still uniformly slyer than the frenetic game of “spot the pop culture reference” Scary Movie and its offspring had/would come to favor. Its protagonists not only realize they are characters in a movie but break the fourth wall constantly, verbally commenting on and explicitly deconstructing shopworn genre tropes (the “slow motion entrance”, the “token black guy”, the “unrequited best friend”, the “slow clap”) in the process of portraying them.*** Characters read self-help books tailored to the exact specifics of their situation (“How to get the uniquely rebellious girl who’s in love with the popular boy” vs. “How to get the popular boy without compromising your unique rebelliousness”), and the self-possessed star quarterback pauses during his triumphant entrance (during which all manner of underwear is thrown at him from all manner of adoring classmates) to gaze at a framed picture of himself, gazing at a framed picture of himself. Emotionally overwrought teenagers are a hallmark of the genre, and NATM’s overqualified cast does a great job undergirding the enterprise’s essential silliness by remaining deadly serious (and looking conspicuously a decade+ past high school age). The film also gets plenty of mileage out of clever (or at least unexpected) juxtapositions between what it is showing and what it’s describing – for example the substance behind Janie’s lauded outsider art, or reactions to the sexy new foreign exchange student’s scandalous wardrobe. It’s not that any of what’s presented is particularly high-minded, but I’d assert that it is thoughtful, and, crucially, it is often damned funny to boot.

***Future “How I Met Your Mother” star Josh Radnor appears here as a 26-year-old background player who observes, while critiquing what one imagines must be at least his eighth senior prom, “You’d never suspect that everybody at this school is a professional dancer.”

Much of NATM’s appeal is attributable to its quirky personal style – a sort of stylized deadpan the movie rapidly refines after an awful opening 10 minutes – which doesn’t feel quite like any other parody I’ve seen. Its production design is notable in that it has one. Helmed by steady MTV production vet Joel Gallen, the movie doesn’t look made on the cheap or cobbled together out of spare parts. The sets are rich in detail, fun and varied, and the then-unknown cast was clearly assembled with care, so thoroughly does each member embody his or her particular high school stereotype. Future Captain America Chris Evans makes Jake an above average entitled jock, balancing three dicey romantic interests – the aforementioned “unique rebel” Janie (future Grey’s Anatomy star Chyler Leigh, whose beauty, the film argues, is all but unfathomable, hidden as it is behind dollar store eyeglasses and a ponytail), the scatterbrained head cheerleader Priscilla (future My Name is Earl star Jamie Pressly, cheerfully vindictive in all directions) and the seductive femme fatale Catherine (goth vision Mia Kershner, back in the days before The L Word ruined her) – and a rivalry with the devious, bionic eyebrows of smarmy fellow jock Eric Christian Olsen (lately of NCIS: Los Angeles). As Jake and Janie’s unlikely romance speeds toward its totally preordained conclusion (a fun early gag shows the school marquee listing the movie’s four major events – freshman orientation, Wasserstein’s house party, the big football game, and senior prom – all scheduled for the same week), guest stars emerge to help the young couple along its way. Randy Quaid goes all in as Janie’s erratic father, a pie fetishist who dispenses life lessons to his daughter in between flashbacks to Vietnam. The late Paul Gleason picks up where he left off in 1985, playing crusty Breakfast Club antagonist Richard Vernon as part absurd homage, part deleted scene made manifest, and the late Ed Lauter turns in a wonderfully committed bit performance as my favorite needlessly profane football coach of all time. The surprises don’t stop there, or with the unexpected later cameos from two high profile 1980s icons I won’t name here. Leigh even repurposes Phoebe Cates’ famous morbid monologue from Gremlins into something goofy and clever, almost as a throwaway gag.

Not Another Teen Movie is a loving parody of high school films, made, seemingly, for an audience that has actually watched more movies than it has celebrity news. That’s a cumulative total, mind you. The film is at once so winningly competent and glaringly imperfect that it kind of defies easy description. Its first ten minutes are chaotic and muck-filled, as the film strains to both set up its avalanche of characters and provide enough crass signifiers (including one disgusting piece of toilet humor that goes so far over the line, I’m half-tempted to think of it as ironic commentary) to satiate its less discriminating viewers for the full 90 minutes. It is also the only spoof I’ve seen in the past twenty years to show any tangible affection for its characters, or sneak in any sense of their personal growth. It is crass to a fault and dumb, but then it is thoughtful and funny, and even after it has settled down, NATM still oscillates between the two poles, though the latter gains additional screen time with each new opportunity. The movie has just enough heart to fully lift itself out of the gutter it might’ve otherwise occupied by association, and just enough brains to lift it higher still. And it’s funny. Why then should I only give it a 2.5 star rating? Because of the disreputable company it brings to mind? Because some viewers might, nay, absolutely will, find the end result so unappealing? Because the insufficiencies and inherent flaws of the star rating system simply must be lived with? Roger Ebert also famously once said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it,” meaning that the worth of a superior horror movie was, in the end, equal to that of a prestige drama, or a dumb comedy, or a towering documentary, or a scrappy little spoof. As a movie lover, that is an axiom I’ve always adored and tried to live by, and thus Not Another Teen Movie is a three-star movie. Yeah, this just in.

Ebert gave it two, by the way, though I’ll bet he also only saw it once. I just had to go back and check.

“Not Another Teen Movie” (2001) 3/4 stars

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