There are two primary changes that immediately distinguish Netflix’s He’s All That from the film on which it’s based, the 1999 teen rom-com She’s All That: It’s gender-swapped and Gen Z-centric. But the new film, directed by Mean Girls helmer Mark Waters, fails to make intelligent use of either of those alterations — nor does it retain even the slightest charms of its predecessor.
Both movies are high-school-set Pygmalion adaptations; the widely beloved original stars Freddie Prinze Jr. as the popular jock who takes a bet to make a prom queen out of an art geek (Rachael Leigh Cook, in her breakout role). The new film’s most obvious attempt at an update — and ultimately its biggest mistake — is to cast TikTok star Addison Rae in the guru role, now a beauty influencer named Padgett Sawyer instead of Prinze’s soccer star Zack Siler. When her hacky pop star boyfriend (Peyton Meyer) humiliates her on a livestream, Padgett goes viral “in the wrong way,” losing thousands of followers and consequently her sponsorship with a cosmetics brand (getting fired by a beauty mogul played by Kourtney Kardashian).
Since “makeovers are my thing,” after all, Padgett makes a bet with one of her friends (Madison Pettis and Myra Molloy are among the film’s brightish spots as Padgett’s BFFs, a clique filled out in 1999 by Paul Walker and Dulé Hill): She’ll turn a total dweeb into the next prom king, thus winning back her followers and sponsorship. Because, we are expected to believe, the politics of the hilariously named Cali High School are somehow compelling enough to attract hundreds of thousands of teenage consumers’ rapt attention. Though I guess following the efforts of a bunch of girls desperate to be indoctrinated into tacky campus cults has apparently become a craze too, so what do I know?
KEVIN ESTRADA/NETFLIX Tanner Buchanan and Addison Rae in ‘He’s All That’
Anyway, Padgett’s target is Cameron Kweller (Cobra Kai‘s Tanner Buchanan), a moody misanthrope with a passion for photography. Whatever shall happen between them?!
Less than one might hope, actually. In theory, while the Cameron/Laney/Eliza Doolittle character changes outwardly, expanding their world and embracing their untapped potential, the Padgett/Zack/Henry Higgins figure ought to have the deeper transformation, realizing that they’ve long been living by a false set of values. No such thing happens here. It simply can’t. The movie revolves around Rae just as much as its plot does around Padgett; it’s not about to delegitimize her entire class of celebrity, even though that’s the only worthwhile way to end it. Padgett is granted one (comically shallow) moment of growth, acknowledging that sometimes she presents herself on social media as more polished than she is in real life. This would have maybe passed for a fresh observation eight or 10 years ago, and as an epiphany here it comes up entirely short as it fails to address the deeper falseness of social media and the trap of living one’s life on it.
Waters’ film relentlessly presents Padgett as kind, hardworking, optimistic, and warmhearted; it lacks the courage to portray its heroine, so intertwined is she with the actress playing her, as anything worse than merely self-conscious, even in the beginning. The tacked-on detail that her single mom (Cook, one of two She’s All That alumni who appear in the remake, the other being Matthew Lillard) struggles financially and that Padgett’s influencing income provides for her college fund — though she projects no intellectual curiosity that might suggest the prospect of higher education inspires her at all — comes across as a flimsy attempt to make her influencing seem somehow virtuous.
But it might be just as well that Padgett is not given a real emotional arc, nor anything resembling an internal life. Even when little is asked of her, Rae’s acting is not up to the challenge. Buchanan doesn’t exactly deliver a star-making performance either, but he’s not even given a chance to. It may be called He’s All That, but the movie belongs to Rae, for better or for worse.
Production-wise, He’s All That is about as slick and bland as your average wannabe influencer’s feed. Even the wardrobe, which has the potential to be such a critical tool in any teen movie (hello, Clueless) is a complete wasted opportunity here. This is a Pygmalion adaptation about Gen Z — that’s both a story and a generation fixated on the tension of living authentically in a superficial world. There are countless ways Waters and screenwriter R. Lee Fleming Jr. (who also wrote She’s All That) could have cleverly explored this source material within this setting to update it meaningfully for a new audience. Instead they applied a lazy social media device and made it about an influencer, which is a person who makes a career out of passing off superficiality as authenticity, and then refused to shake her worldview.
She’s All That is hardly a masterpiece — it’s not even the best classics-inspired teen rom-com of 1999, having come out two months before 10 Things I Hate About You — but its light magic and large cast of appealing young actors on the verge of stardom are undeniably winning. Its greatest moment, of course, is when a newly made-over Laney Boggs walks down the stairs to meet Zack. She’s wearing a little red ’90s minidress, and Sixpence None the Richer’s dreamy “Kiss Me” plays overhead. He’s taken aback by this vision of prom queen perfection. She can hardly walk in her shoes. They’re both nervous. They hold each other’s gaze. We all hold our breath… and she trips. The music stops abruptly as he catches her, they both collect themselves, and they leave for the party. It’s so romantic; it’s so awkward. And there’s not so much as a fraction of a second of He’s All That with the power that it has, though the film does make use of an unfortunate “Kiss Me” remix. Now that’s influence. Grade: D