John Tucker is the kind of boy whose powers of attraction are a mystery to everyone outside his immediate presence. Not smart, blithely fake, and not particularly interesting, he coasts by with a combination of bland good looks and the mysterious draw of Popularity, a phenomenon that feeds on itself -- he's popular, and therefore people like him. Especially girls. As played by Jesse Metcalfe in Betty Thomas' new film, John Tucker Must Die, the movie's title character is nothing more than a pretty picture, almost totally lacking in personality. Much like Metcalfe himself on-screen, Tucker replaces emotions with bright smiles, and soothes all worries with a confident word.
To give the womanizing Tucker his comeuppance, Thomas and screenwriter Jeff Lowell provide a trio of exes who, during an unexpected PE volleyball game (their regular teacher had a heart attack induced by John Tucker's charms), discover that they're all dating him at the same time. Though originally mollified by his ernest insistence that each of them is, in fact, his only secret girlfriend, the three are jarred out of their Tucker-nosis by Kate (Brittany Snow), a newcomer whose mother (Jenny McCarthy) has dated a fleet of her own John Tuckers. Taking Kate on as a sort of teacher-cum-apprentice, the girls resolve to teach the lying, cheating Tucker a lesson. If they can't make him undatable (they can't), they'll break his heart instead. This dream team of revenge, brought together only by their common hatred of John Tucker, have a wonderful, only-in-the-movies diversity to them. First there's Beth (gleefully played by One Tree Hill's Sophia Bush), the vegan teen activist ("Code", we are told, "for easy.") who is unable to keep from having sex with Tucker, even when she's breaking up with him. Next is Carrie (Arielle Kebbel) the leggy, blonde brainiac who speaks French, runs the school TV station, and is destined for Harvard. Finally, there's Heather (Ashanti), the stereotypical head cheerleader who gives the group its token attitude. It's a lot of fun to watch the three exes romp through John Tucker Must Die, happily providing backup to the quiet Kate as they guide her into the relationship they hope will destroy Tucker. Though Ashanti rarely seem to not be Acting, both Bush and Kebbel are wonderfully relaxed, and enjoy the hell out of their rolls, taking pratfalls when the script demands it, and playing up the most outrageous elements of their characters.
At the movie's center, though, is Kate (Snow), an innocent girl whose teen years have been spent disappearing into a new high school every time her mom gets dumped (which, for some reason, involves the family then moving). Through a serious of Hollywood coincidences, she finds herself of use to the popular kids at school, and her peers actually know her name for the first time in years. A soap opera vet, Snow is an incredibly appealing presence, and the natural charm and awkwardness she brings to Kate make the character and her slow transformations unexpectedly convincing. Though her mannerisms -- lowered eyes when she's uncomfortable, swallowed words when she's in doubt, and laughter to cover embarrassment -- are nothing new, she presents them in such a way that they feel part of a whole character, not just tools in an actor's bag of tricks. In a teen, popcorn movie like this one, one doesn't expect to find such fresh naturalism, and it's thanks to Snow and her performance that the movie works at all.
There's nothing surprising about John Tucker Must Die's plot. The moment the girls set their "Make John Tucker fall in love with Kate so we can break his heart!" plan in motion, everyone in the theater immediately knows what's coming. The twists and turns, misunderstandings and fights, have been laid out by dozens of teen movies before this one, and they unfold just as we expect they will -- but it's somehow still impossible not to get a kick out of watching Kebbel mastermind a high-tech surveillance system that will allow the girls to keep an eye on Kate while she's on dates, and seeing the cheeky joy Bush gets from playing what may possibly be the first three-dimensional slutty teenage vegan ever to appear on screen. And there's always Snow, whose uneasy innocence makes us actually believe her age-old confusion over her true feelings, and her hurt when Tucker inevitably plays the cad. We've all seen this movie many times before, and it's to the credit of the cast (with the exception of Metcalfe, who mostly stands around looks handsomely confused) that we don't mind seeing them play it out again.
Though John Tucker Must Die is by no means a feminist manifesto, it is also nothing like the sex-drenched, man-eating affair the trailers trick us into expecting. Instead, it's a periodically stupid, fundamentally sweet movie about love and independence. It gets more unrealistic at every turn, and is unable to stay away from audience candy like fart jokes, a lesbian kiss and the funny fat sidekick, but it also presents well-adjusted, intelligent female characters who don't destroy their personalities to fit in. When, early in their revenge program, the girls substitute estrogen supplements for Tucker's muscle-building powder, he predictably develops the kind of feminine characteristics that are guaranteed to kill at the multiplex: He's petulant, passive-aggressive, insecure about his body, and deals with conflict by running off in tears. Notably, none of the women in the film have any of those characteristics -- in fact, Tucker's are the only tears shed by a main player in the entire movie. The four central female characters, unlike the estrogenified-Tucker, are intelligent, self-aware and confident; there's not a pathetic, needy girl in the bunch -- and there is much worse company than these four for teenage audiences to be keeping this summer.