It’s rarely mentioned alongside the best teen movies of the decade, like Superbad, Bring It On and The Girl Next Door. And the parallels to Mean Girls and Clueless (high-camp teen hijinks centering on an ugly duckling) are brighter than a Juicy Couture jumpsuit.
But if you give the film a second chance 14 years later, you might realize that Jeff Lowell’s screenplay transforms conventional teen tropes into a witty treatise about 2000s-era high school relationships. Venture back to a time when a night out at the mall was romance and everyone had a flip phone. You can almost smell the Axe Body Spray exuding from Metcalfe’s hairless body.
The story follows Kate (Brittany Snow in a deep V-neck Hollister sweatshirt) taking down the campus king, John Tucker (Metcalfe), a serial cheater and walking Abercrombie & Fitch ad. To black-widow him, Kate teams up with Tucker’s three headstrong exes: head cheerleader Heather (Ashanti), honor roll student Carrie (Arielle Kebbel) and teen vegan Beth (Sophia Bush). (“For you,” she says, “I don’t have to give up all meat.”)
Certainly, it’s no modern feminist statement on the perils of toxic masculinity. In one scene, Heather drugs Tucker with estrogen supplements, causing him to cry and wonder, “Do my thighs look fat in these shorts?” Later, Carrie, as a reporter for the high school morning news, traps herself in the men’s locker room and records teenage characters changing to catch Metcalfe talking shit. Carrie, secretly videotaping underage kids is illegal!
By far the biggest mistake John Tucker Must Die makes is casting Penn Badgley as Tucker’s schlubby brother Scott. To demonstrate his misunderstood status (he listens to Cheap Trick), Scott describes himself as not “hot, buff or capable of inciting an all-girl smackdown” like his brother. Badgley, You know this is a flat-out lie. Have you seen the way girls (and gay men) fawn over you on your little walks around Brooklyn? Stop lying, Gossip Girl.
Still, John Tucker Must Die is an undeniably fun nostalgia trip, much like the ambitious Little Nicky and the subversive Joe Dirt — two recent MEL movie picks. We get Jenny McCarthy as Kate’s hot mom, teenagers driving Jeep Wranglers and All-American Rejects on the soundtrack. Kate slut-shames Beth, claiming, “Being a vegan teen activist is usually code for easy.” Literally, what? Who has ever heard that euphemism before? Watching it is a hit of comfort and quarantine-bolstered joy. It ought to be required viewing in an era of rejecting “prestige” entertainment.
At least, that’s what I tell myself. My argument may be overjustification, because we all know there’s one reason John Tucker Must Die is juicy repeat viewing. If Ryan Phillippe’s ass in Cruel Intentions turned a generation of ’90s kids gay, then Jesse Metcalfe’s butt in a red lace thong spurred the sexual awakening of aughts boys. John Tucker, you’ll never die.