`Can't Hardly' Can't Hold A Candle To Teen Classics

Movie review X "Can't Hardly Wait," starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ethan Embry, Charlie Korsmo, Lauren Ambrose, Peter Facinelli and Seth Green. Written and directed by Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan. 96 minutes. Several theaters. Rated PG-13 for sexuality and language.

After watching "Can't Hardly Wait," you'll feel sad for the Class of 1998. They've been victimized by the fashion industry and forced to suffer through substandard pop music, and now Hollywood can't even leave them with a seminal movie to revisit. Instead our graduates get a party flick that's as much fun as a school assembly.

Teen flicks aren't exactly a fine art, but you can't resist returning to the good ones. The early-'80s crowd has "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Late-'80s graduates still have a soft spot for John Hughes' pre-Culkin flicks, "Sixteen Candles," "Pretty in Pink" and "The Breakfast Club." The teen torch passed to Richard Linklater, whose THC-laden love note, "Dazed and Confused," and existential "subUrbia" captured the lazy, crazy feeling of limbo during the last days of the locker years.

By now there's a formula: The cast usually includes the idiot jock and his misunderstood beauty-queen girlfriend; the sensitive outcast hero with sidekick; the metalheads and the punks; the stoners; the foreign exchange student; the nerds; and the illegal keg of cheap beer. "Can't Hardly Wait" includes all of these elements, throws in a white homeboy for good measure, and raids the cast lists of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Clueless" and "Scream." Melissa Joan Hart, Jenna Elfman and Jerry O'Connell all make uncredited cameos.

Instead of bringing back the joys of high school, "Can't Hardly Wait" reminds you why it's better to forget the terrible teens. A couple of cute touches stand out, like introducing the six main characters in freeze frame with accompanying yearbook stats, but the majority of the film is mired in magazine cliches and tired gags. Oh, look, the foreign exchange student only knows how to say he's a sex machine, haw! And the nerd's getting drunk! Hoo!

Everyone lets loose at a post-graduation party - except for Preston (Ethan Embry), who is there on a mission. The school jock, Mike (Peter Facinelli), has dropped his prom-queen girlfriend, Amanda (Jennifer Love Hewitt), for whom Preston has carried a torch since freshman year. So Preston drags along his cynical pal Denise (Lauren Ambrose) to the party to give Amanda a love letter he's carried around since those first days. . .

Meanwhile, William, the school geek (Charlie Korsmo), plans elaborate payback for all of Mike's gags at his expense, and Kenny (Seth Green) adopts his dopest version of ebonics in the hopes of getting some action. Many beers later, wacky high jinks ensue. Thanks to the magical brew, the jock becomes the joke. It doesn't make Bud wiser, but the brain gets cooler with every sip. A rolling keg even manages to help deliver Preston's testimonial of love to his quarry while he's sulking in his car, listening to Barry Manilow.

That's right. Barry Manilow. In directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont's world, the hip-hop generation still thinks he's the man, along with one-hitters Young MC and Tone Loc. The actors don't have much to work with in the script; Denise quotes Oscar Wilde in the yearbook and Don Henley in conversation. "Don't look back. You should never look back," she advises Preston.

Hewitt isn't anything special here as she wanders through her waif routine while Embry mopes around like a moon-eyed comic-strip character. Ambrose is the only thing worth watching, though it doesn't take a genius to see why she was cast. Let's see, red hair, pouty lips, acerbic wit and attitude - good golly, it's Molly!

But like the film she's unfortunate enough to star in, Ambrose still pales in comparison to her predecessor.