Hollywood is a sucker for cross-dressing. When the American Film Institute chose the hundred greatest comedies of all time, a pair of drag films — Some Like It Hot and Tootsie — earned the top two slots. From Operation Petticoat to White Chicks, slapping falsies on a dude is the fast road to Chuckletown. Women dressing as men, however … not so much. You’re pretty much stuck with Yentl (not a laff riot) and the ’80s teen comedy Just One of the Guys.
She’s the Man, in which a teenage girl must go undercover at a private school in order to play soccer, has that little shred of originality going for it. Not that you’d notice while watching: From start to finish, Andy Fickman’s comedy doesn’t have an unpredictable moment in it. Instead, it borrows heavily from Just One of the Guys, the cross-dressing teen soccer comedy Ladybugs, just about every sports movie or teen comedy ever, and, oh yeah, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which the film acknowledges as its official inspiration. (Now that we’ve also seen teen versions of Taming of the Shrew and Othello, can we please get a teen comedy based on The Merchant of Venice?) What the film does have in its favor is teen-queen-turned-drag-king Amanda Bynes, who tackles the lead role of Viola/Sebastian with enough enthusiasm to wring laughs from the retread story she’s trapped in.
When Viola’s school eliminates the girls’ soccer team, then the boys’ coach delivers a stinging rebuke of female athletes (which would be a one-way ticket to litigation in the real world) and Viola’s goalie boyfriend agrees with him, the stage is set for rebellion. As luck would have it, Viola’s twin brother Sebastian is getting ready to sneak off to London for a few weeks, and his new school will be playing Viola’s in soccer in the space of that fortnight. Is it obvious that Viola will have to impersonate her brother at a boarding school so she can make the boys’ soccer team and get revenge on the caveman coach and her ex?
Indeed it is. And so is everything else, from Viola’s crush on hunky roommate Duke (Channing Tatum, not registering as anything but muscled), the movie’s eight or so montages, and the climactic soccer game. (Will Viola have to reveal the truth to her new love just before making a game-breaking kick against her ex? Could these questions be more rhetorical?) Fickman has a reputation for directing comedy for the stage (notably Reefer Madness: The Musical), but he looks lost here. Every editing choice seems geared toward upping the MTV-chop quotient, which works fine for soccer scenes but is comedy death.
And seeing as how the film isn’t going for originality anyway, Fickman and his team of writers should have paid a little more attention to the source material. They paint Viola as a tomboy, when it would have been inherently funnier if the transition to maleness were more extreme. (This, by the way, is why the big laughs in Some Like It Hot come from Jack Lemmon, not girly-man Tony Curtis.) In the same vein, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), the friend who helps turn Viola into Sebastian, is played as a metrosexual instead of a grunting guy-guy. If you recall Just One of the Guys (and it’s okay if you don’t), the total pig-brother/guide-to-maleness Buddy produced all the big laughs.
So thank God for Bynes. The nineteen-year-old star of The Amanda Show and What I Like About You isn’t exactly a skilled actress, but she does have the charm that’s won her legions of teen fans and six Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards (beat that, Dame Judi). She’s clearly having a blast in her moppy dude wig, barking out banter, slapping things, and acting like an idiot. The best moments come when she bounces between personas, saying something girly or thoughtful, then catching herself and braying out something stupid. It helps you remember that all the real teen boys are putting on an act as well.
The other rays of light come from the adult supporting cast (the rest of the teens are interchangeable hunks and hunkettes). In particular, cult comedy star David Cross (Arrested Development, Mr. Show) as oblivious Principal Gold and soccer-legend-turned-actor Vinnie Jones (Snatch) as the good-guy soccer coach are great fun. They share only a brief moment onscreen together, but it’s long enough to learn one thing: A buddy movie featuring Cross and Jones could be comedy gold.
Maybe it isn’t fair to be hard on a teen movie for not being original. Should we really expect today’s kids to track down Just One of the Guys to get their drag-king humor fix? Sure, the thirteen-year-old sitting behind me who proclaimed She’s the Man to be “the best movie ever” earned her firm rebuttal. But what’s the harm if plenty of other teens are blissfully wrong along with her?