Can’t Hardly Wait
1998 • 101 minutes • Columbia Pictures
My brother is almost a decade older than me, which means that we’re, culturally speaking, part of two very different generations, although eternally linked through the Nintendo 64. (A specific Nintendo 64, in this case.) He was a teenager in the nineties, and I, a small child, watched his lifestyle avidly to try and prepare myself for the upcoming wild ride of adolescence. According to my findings, there would be parties! There would be shenanigans! And there would be frosted tips!
Of course, my acute observations were nipped in the bid the moment my brother discovered that his little sister would happily rat out his most embarrassing stories to any girl he knew willing to pay attention to me. I was thus banished from his high school kingdom and forced to seek other older kids who would let me watch movies my mother wouldn’t let me watch elsewhere. (It was the girl next door and it was Titanic.) But this is how I came to inherit a heavily nineties-tinged view of what teenage life was. And it somehow never really went away, considering that I spent my own aughts adolescence perfecting the arts of fandom lurking and terrible bangs.
This is the only way I explain how I watched Can’t Hardly Wait, a movie that came out before I was even my adult height, and suddenly experienced a deep sense of nostalgia for a time that’s not even mine. (Even consuming eighties media doesn’t do that to me; it just makes me feel comfortable.) Can’t Hardly Wait is a nineties nostalgia bomb/period piece par excellence, depending on whether or not you were a particular age in 1998. It’s not only the hair, the costumes, and the production values—slim to none, but in a good, deliberate, minimalist way—but also its broad, cartoonish humor and the filmmaking itself. The moment the credits began rolling in a font that I can only call “slacker appropriate,” I knew this was going to be about as in your face late nineties as a film could be.
What makes Can’t Hardly Wait strangely enduring—and certainly enduring enough that I actually sought it out on purpose—is that it’s a very basic teen movie at heart. The ensemble is composed of high school archetypes, who explore, reject, or affirm their identities over the course of the last party of high school. Nerds want revenge on the big man on campus, who has just broken up with his girlfriend in advance of expecting college girls to swarm him, who just wants to be seen as a person, who is seen as a manic pixie dream girl by a wide-eyed dreamer, whose best friend is so over high school. It even ends in a nod towards American Graffiti, a much more melancholic take on the whole “not a girl, not yet a woman” dying days of high school situation, by telling us about some of the characters’ futures.
But separated from its lineage and its decade, it’s not… it’s not very good, is it? All the elements that make it so aggressively nineties also make it difficult to watch—the broad, cartoonish humor that’s more nasty than kind, the homophobia played for laughs, and jokes predicated more on shock value than actual humor. (Although in the wake of things like Superbad and 21 Jump Street, Can’t Hardly Wait’s imagination is almost cute in comparison.) And Ethan Embry’s Preston Meyers pursues Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Amanda Beckett with such single-minded entitlement at times that it can be hard to watch. It’s sloppy in a way that’s appealing to those who lived it, but not so much for someone else.
There are some definite highlights, though; I was pleasantly surprised when Amanda gets scenes where she talks about wanting to be a person outside of being the popular guy’s boyfriend and her struggles with identity. Hewitt really sells Amanda, especially when she begins to pursue Preston without actually knowing what he looks like. Preston has a lovely relationship with his best friend, Denise. While they dated in middle school for a week, there’s no, as I initially feared, romantic tension between the two of them. And Denise gets a nice story of her own, reconnecting with a childhood friend and ending up being in a couple that keeps breaking up but gets back together because they just like each other so much.
I watched this film on Netflix.