Harry Elfont & Deborah Kaplan’s ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ (1998)

26Jul09

Can’t Hardly Wait was one of those movies that everyone I knew had seen and could quote lines from when I was a teenager. I recently rewatched it for the first time in many, many years, and I was surprised at how much it still entertained me, which probably had a lot to do with its nostalgic value. Not only was Can’t Hardly Wait a memorable movie from my adolescence, it features a lot of actors in the nascence of their careers, including a throng of actors who appear on Buffy.

The film follows the formula of a typical graduation/prom/significant high-school event-type movie: get a bunch of different high-school stereotypes in one place, involve them in convoluted and/or wacky situations, and cultivate romances between people in different social cliques. All our characters converge at a graduation party where Preston (the romantic nice-guy type) is trying to reveal his long-unrequited crush to Amanda (the homecoming queen type) who has just been dumped, William (the Revenge of the Nerds type) is trying to retaliate against Mike (the arrogant jock type) for years of bullying, Kenny (the “Pretty Fly for a White Guy” type) is trying to lose his virginity, and Denise (the cynical malcontent type) is trying to remember why she decided to come in the first place.

I find the casting choices rather interesting. Much of the main cast (Ethan Embry, Lauren Ambrose, Charlie Korsmo, Seth Green) were hardly the hot young actors at the time, and they have continued to remain more character actors rather than leading men and women. The actors with bigger names, at least at the time (Melissa Joan Hart, Jenna Elfman, Jerry O’Connell), have minor, uncredited roles. Of the main cast, Jennifer Love Hewitt was probably the movie’s biggest name due to her starring role on the TV series Party of Five and in the horror flick I Know What You Did Last Summer. Seth Green would have recently scored big with Austin Powers, but most likely when the movie was shot he didn’t yet have much in the way of box office draw.

Ethan Embry was in the peak of his film career to date at the time of this movie’s release. He had appeared in the soon-to-be cult hit Empire Records, had a small part in the moderately successful That Thing You Do, and transitioned to a larger role in the critically panned Vegas Vacation. Here, he is arguably the leading man, and he plays Preston with a wide-eyed earnestness that I found appealing as a teen-aged girl. Though I still think Embry is cute and Preston undeniably sweet, he is also rather blandly written and doesn’t have much interesting stuff to do. He pines and then is crushed. He pines some more and gets crushed again.

As his love interest, Amanda is equally lackluster. After being dumped by her long-term boyfriend, Amanda wonders if she has an identity outside of being Mike Dexter’s girlfriend. By the end of the film, she realizes that of course she has another identity: being Preston’s girlfriend. However, Amanda does get a moment that most female leads of romantic comedies do not when she speaks some truth to her suitor of questionable motives. She says to Preston:

…you think I’m going to strip off my clothes and do you, right here, because, I don’t know, you imagined that we shared some intimate moment that you have probably been drooling over for the past four years. God, how sick and deluded are you? You know what? Why don’t you just go off and get yourself a goddamned life, asshole.

And she is absolutely right. Don’t get me wrong: I like Preston. He doesn’t seem like a creep or anything, but he also doesn’t seem to know Amanda very well either. He thinks he knows her soul or something, but she can’t put his name to his face. I doubt that they have had any extensive conversations over the years. Preston is in love with the idea of Amanda rather than Amanda herself, a not uncommon tendency for characters in romantic comedies. I find it refreshing this movie says that just because Preston has been pining from afar for so long doesn’t mean he automatically gets the girl. But ultimately it is still a mainstream romantic comedy, so Preston and Amanda do get together by the end. However, I like that Amanda never apologizes for yelling at him, which for me leaves the validity of her censure of him intact. As Amanda, Jennifer Love Hewitt is fine but doesn’t particularly own the role. I could see several other actors filling Amanda’s shoes as adequately or even better than Hewitt does.

I find myself more engaged by Kenny and Denise’s storyline, probably because they aren’t the typical meet-cutes. They exist in different social spheres, but they aren’t a popular girl/geek or jock/ugly duckling pairing. Both of these characters exist somewhere on the fringe of high-school society: while Denise doesn’t try to fit in, Kenny tries so hard to be cool that he makes a fool of himself. I also connect to their story because it feels more real to me, probably because I had an experience similar to theirs at a graduation party. I ended up at a party with a boy whom I had been very good friends with when we were younger but who suddenly shunned our friendship when we got to high school. We didn’t end up having sex on a bathroom floor, but we did talk and achieve a sense of closure. And I know that we wouldn’t have had that conversation if we weren’t at a graduation party, reminding us that a chapter of our lives was ending. I also love that Kenny and Denise end up having bad sex, breaking up, making up, feeling weird the next day, breaking up again, and then finding a bathroom to make up again. I don’t feel like the movie is trying to sell me the idea that they found a perfect, happy ending. Their ending is simply happy enough. I really appreciate that Denise doesn’t have to change to be with Kenny and that their relationship isn’t meant to validate her. She might be slightly less cynical at the end of the movie, but she is pretty much the same person. Kenny, however, does have to change, but it’s presented as though he has to abandon an adopted persona and be his real self, the Kenny Fisher who bought Denise a card and bag of conversation hearts on Valentine’s Day. I remember having a lot of admiration for Denise and really liking Lauren Ambrose when I saw this movie in high school, and I don’t think those impressions have changed much. I really like the dynamic between Ambrose and Seth Green, who also does a great job portraying Kenny’s transformation from a caricature into a fully three-dimensional person.

My one complaint about the film is that it’s not very gay-friendly. William plans to humiliate Mike by taking pictures of an unconscious Mike and male friend “in lurid embrace,” and when the police find William and Mike in such a position they call them “sickos.” After Amanda publicly dumps Mike, someone calls him a “fag,” and everyone laughs at him. To counterbalance those incidents, the Angel Stripper encourages Preston when she thinks that he’s in love with Barry Manilow, and writer-directors Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan seem to acknowledge the “bromance” between William and Mike by playing a music cue from Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You” when they drunkenly embrace. But I’m not sure that the latter two moments wash away the bad taste of the others.

Really, Can’t Hardly Wait isn’t a bad little high school film. It doesn’t have anything particularly new to say, but it manages to say something interesting enough. And as a bonus, the movie features three very crushable gingers: Seth Green, of course, Lauren Ambrose, and Ethan Embry.

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One Response to “Harry Elfont & Deborah Kaplan’s ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ (1998)”

  1. 1 Natasha Snaps

    First, I just wanted to say I love your blog! I’m currently doing Film Studies at university so think all of what you’re saying is really interesting (I found you through the Tara / Willow Doors article, which was also brilliant).

    I agree about the Denise / Kenny romance, it was definitely more “realistic” and thus accessible than the other romantic story line(s). I originally saw the film due to my Jennifer Love Hewitt crush / obsession, but ultimately found Lauren Ambrose’s performance and character far more satisfying.

    I was only 8 when Can’t Hardly Wait was released but saw it when I was about 11, and like you say, it’s the kind of movie you remain nostalgic about and fond of even years later.


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