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'Whatever it Takes': Something Just Cliques

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 24, 2000


    'Whatever it Takes' A couple of guys do "Whatever it Takes" to get the girl of their dreams. (Gramercy Pictures)
Some stories are so perfect, they defy all attempts to ruin them. Certainly writer Mark Schwahn and director David Raynr try hard to destroy Edmond Rostand's classic charmer "Cyrano de Bergerac" by high-schoolizing it into something so vanilla it's almost a wafer. But even hiding it under a bland and meaningless title like "Whatever It Takes," they can't quite kill it. It's still got some panache.

The movie is set at generic suburban Gilmore High, an institution so untouched since the '50s that it could count Dobie Gillis among its students, except for the fact that the school nurse loves to display a six-foot-high plastic penis at school assemblies. Like all high schools -- like all of human society, in fact -- Gilmore has divided itself into castes, only one of which is cool. You can tell those who belong at a glance (you always can): aloof, beautiful, confident, physical and, most of all, unself-conscious.

That seems to make them a divine race, especially Ashley (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe), of the lustrous hair, the angelic face, the milky complexion, the comely bod. She walks on air, aware of only one thing: her own coolness and what it entitles her to.

Far down the social pyramid, poor accordion-playing Ryan (Shane West) admires her poetically, confiding his yearnings to his best pal, gal-next-door Maggie (Marla Sokoloff, in a role years distant from her comic turn on "The Practice").

Ryan is the Cyrano descendant: Does he have a vast proboscis, lengthy as the horizon on the Mongolian plains, wide as the Nile, stout as the hump on the mythic Hippocamelelephantoles? No, he has something far worse, a crippling disfigurement: He's self-aware. He gets it. He sees himself as ridiculous. He knows it's a game. He's ironic. What a loser!

But brain-dead cool guy Chris (James Franco) comes to Ryan with an offer Ryan can't refuse: He, Chris, will coach Ryan on How to Succeed With Ashley Without Really Trying, if in turn Ryan will teach him how to succeed with Maggie, for whom he has a mighty yen. The deal is struck, loathsome though it is; and thus, Ryan stage-manages Chris's come-ons to Maggie, just as Cyrano did Christian's to Roxane. And like Cyrano, Ryan realizes it's Maggie he really loves.

Meanwhile, with stupefying ease and Chris's Neanderthal hints ("Tell her you don't like her hair"), he conquers poor Ashley. Talk about a hollow victory: Ashley turns out to be a one-dimensional dweeb so pathetic she should have to wear the scarlet "L." (O'Keefe is extremely effective in this role; she takes Ashley from goddess to moron in record time and makes you believe each version.)

What keeps the film perky is the charm of its young performers -- especially the radiantly decent Sokoloff and the self-loathing intellectualisms of West -- and the occasional inspired riff on Rostand's themes. One hopes that kids as smart and passionate as Ryan and Maggie still exist in high school, just as one knows that face men as vain and self-absorbed as Chris always will.

WHATEVER IT TAKES (93 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for the sexual innuendo that afflicts all movies set in high school.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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