What is it about fancy prep schools that makes them the de facto setting for contemporary re-imaginings of Shakespeare? Something about the parent-free environs of the pretty and privileged makes it a completely believable breeding ground for Shakespearean turmoil of assorted varieties. This time, we get Twelfth Night, only it’s (poorly) renamed She’s the Man and involves fewer tropical islands and shipwrecks and more soccer and slapstick.
Viola (the preternaturally spunky Amanda Bynes) is a soccer star and wacky tomboy who’s royally ticked when her school cuts the girls’ team. The smug coach – and Vi’s equally buffoonish boyfriend – refuse to let the ousted players try out for the boys’ squad because girls are fragile and slow, or some other early-1980s-grade cutting-edge sexism. So Vi assumes the identity of her twin brother, Sebastian, who snuck off to London for a couple of weeks, to make the team at a rival boarding school and prove her point. Article continues below
A requisite makeover montage later, and Vi shows up at Illyria Prep doing her best imitation of a guy. Actually, she is doing a chillingly successful reproduction of Jonathan Taylor Thomas circa his Home Improvement/Bop magazine heyday, but at least he was a guy. More or less. She looks about 12, and her efforts to lower her voice result in an accent that veers from Texan to Jamaican and into what can only be described euphemistically as “developmentally disabled,” but still, a decently convincing boy. Albeit a spastic and socially inept one, given to zany histrionics.
She’s the Man finds its feet when it leaves off with Bynes’ “adorably wacky” antics and picks up Shakespeare’s original shenanigans instead. Viola is trying to keep her mind on soccer, but it keeps drifting over to her dreamy roommate, Duke (Channing Tatum), who is in turn gaga for the luscious Olivia. Olivia, though, has taken a liking to Viola-dressed-as-a-man, and is willing to throw down with Sebastian’s high-maintenance girlfriend for “him.” These are hijinks of the finest grade, and they don’t need the extraneous flailing and mugging to make them funny.
The movie is clearly seeking to match the sassy froth of 10 Things I Hate About You, but it’s actually a hybrid between that and the forgotten camp of 1986’s Just One of the Guys – and who ever thought that would get a second incarnation on the big screen? And I don’t necessarily mean that as a slam – it may be guilty, but the pleasure and fun is certainly there, and if you were a fan of 10 Things, you’re likely to be taken with this one as well. Bynes, a graduate of Nickelodeon super-stardom, is an endearing goofball who seems to enjoy parts where she makes a fool of herself while standing up for girl power. Her squeaky voice and hyper energy that will. not. stop. is surprisingly effective, assuming it doesn’t make you want to shoot her. Unfortunately, the landscape of supporting characters runs the short gamut from the flamboyant to the absurd, with really only David Cross standing out with his shtick as the principal who is – no surprise here – clueless and really strange. But at least the bland, perfectly-sculpted hero wanders around without his shirt off often enough to give Viola a reason to fall for him.
Considering Hollywood keeps popping them out, there is clearly a market for these modern razzle-dazzle Shakespeares, presumably even if they do not star Julia Stiles. And even if the end result is slightly less Bard and rather more pre-teen dream, so what? If the squealing 7th grade girls at my screening were any indication, She’s the Man has clearly nailed its target for adolescent-swoony frivolity.