If the people who make Hollywood movies ever figure out that a hot babe with a slammin' bod wearing glasses is still a hot babe with a slammin' bod, an entire film genre will surely die out. Librarians, secretaries and officers in the Salvation Army won't necessarily be assumed to be uptight prudes. Clark Kent will immediately be unmasked as Superman. And pathetic adolescent wallflowers will no longer need the helpful tutelage of the popular kids. Until that day, people will keep making movies like "She's All That," an amiable little teen romance doubling as a 90-minute Bausch & Lomb infomercial.
Laney Boggs (Rachael Leigh Cook) is your typical high school outcast -- a girl whose artistic sensibilities and aforementioned spectacles render her incapable of ever being in with the in crowd. Clad in shapeless overalls and jauntily smudged in oil paints, she assembles collages from photos of starving children and gets inspiration from riots in Mogadishu. Surely such a girl must be deeply unfulfilled. Can this poor thing ever learn to be young, free and socially conscious, to appreciate the value of cute little Bebe dresses while still taking the time to stop and smell the toxic waste?
This, of course, is where the boy comes in. And ooh la la, what a boy. Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr.) is the school soccer champ, an academic superstar and a man with abs of titanium. Normally, such a social dynamo would never notice a freak like Laney. But Zack's bitch goddess girlfriend, Taylor (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe), has just thrown him over for an even more envy-inducing suitor -- Brock Hudson, the "dyslexic volleyball player" from "The Real World" (Matthew Lillard). When Zack declares, in a fit of jilted hissiness, that Taylor can be easily replaced, his competitive friend Dean smells a bet. Zack wagers him that he can turn any girl into the prom queen, and faster than you can say, "Henry Higgins," the two have set their wagering sights on ... that girl!
That Laney would be the weirdest possible option for tiarahood could only make sense in the kind of cinematic high school devoid of a single real pizza-faced frump. But then, considering that the set of "She's All That" doubles as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer's" Sunnydale High, anything -- even science fiction -- is possible. (Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar, even makes a brief appearance in the cafeteria.)
While the outcome of the fable is a foregone conclusion, Laney manages to have a few moments of skepticism over Zack's sudden attentions. She astutely asks him if she's part of a "dork outreach program." It isn't long, however, before he wins her over. "I know the world has its problems," Zack chides her, "but would it hurt you to smile?" And what do you know? She's soon shimmying around in tight red dresses and ditching those pesky eyeglasses (despite her protestations that contacts give her the creeps). Meanwhile, as Zack's interest in his protigi evolves into infatuation, he finds it harder and harder to wriggle out of his petty wager. Perhaps he too is changing?
"She's All That" is basically yet another tale of how clothes make the girl, another brick in the "My Fair Lady"/"Guys and Dolls"/"Pretty in Pink" wall. It's territory director Robert Iscove has trod before -- he was the creative force behind last year's Brandy-powered television adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella." Like "Cinderella," "She's All That" is about a lonely, motherless young girl who gets to go to a big party in a pretty dress and show up everybody who was ever mean to her. But also like "Cinderella," the movie tries to convey the moral that there's more to a person than meets the eye. Ironically, both Zack and Laney use appearance as armor -- Zack's superficial, popular-guy routine is as effective a means of shutting out intimacy or examination as Laney's angry art-chick schtick.
While the idea that a talented young person might require a new hairstyle and a willingness to play beach blanket volleyball in order to get a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T verges on jaw-droppingly retro, "She's All That" does make the case for defying expectations. Eighteen is awfully early to get stuck in a role not entirely of your own making, it says, however comfortable it might be. As they depart the rigid high school caste system of jocks, brains and geeks, Laney and Zack learn the value of letting a few other sides of themselves come out. Though this notion may have been more eloquently expressed by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in "Grease," it's still not such a bad message.
What really saves "She's All That" from being just another why-good-heavens-you're-beautiful piece of piffle, however, is the way its lesser elements sparkle. The romantic comedy may be predictable, but director Iscove's over-the-top parody of faux celebrity -- by way of Lillard's gleefully preening, partying, getting-sensitive-for-the-camera ex-Real Worlder -- is a hoot. His Brock Hudson is an extreme example of what can happen when one does atrophy into a persona, a has-been blissfully unaware of his own irrelevance. Lillard, who was convincingly demented in "Scream," is even scarier here, as the hellspawn of Puck and Jesse Camp. And whether he's flopping like a break-dancing fish to "Give It to Me Baby" or ditching his girl to run off with the "Road Rules All-Stars," he's irresistibly obnoxious.
The film also succeeds in its easy, cross-cultural sophistication. Iscove's student body and its various cliques are unself-consciously racially mixed -- a breath of fresh air when most teen movies are still stiflingly monochromatic. And when the exuberant guests at the prom fall into formation and dance an old-fashioned, fully choreographed musical routine, it's to a throbbing rap beat. It's in such moments that "She's All That" truly takes off, when it seems fresh and funny and very nearly original. It's just that those are the same moments when the central characters are not the focus. When the spotlight goes back to Laney and Zack, the conventionality of the story threatens to eclipse all its other formidable charms.
Maybe the reason these "Pygmalion"-type tales come back into fashion more often than wide-leg jeans is that they address something that anyone who's ever been an adolescent can relate to -- the uniquely youthful dilemma of balancing self-transformation with self-acceptance. In the process of discovering each other, both Laney and Zack learn that it's as OK to change as it is to stay the same, perhaps even better. And being true to yourself is a difficult proposition when you're at an age when self is such a fluid concept. Still, for Laney to truly see herself as she is and to know where she's going, one can't help but think she might want to hang on to those glasses.