‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ (1998): Wannabe raunch-fest a late 90s teen time capsule

Tamped down by a forced PG-13 rating, high school hi-jinx came roaring back in the late ’90s after an absence, and 1998’s Can’t Hardly Wait led the charge and was relatively successful, teeming with young stars–some uncredited–on the brink of breaking big.

By Jason Hink

Newly released to Blu-ray in a 20 Year Reunion Edition, Can’t Hardly Wait scraps its way back to home theaters with a great looking high definition release from Mill Creek Entertainment featuring a collection of extras that should satisfy fans of the film. So put on your beer non-specified-beverage goggles, pop in that Smash Mouth CD, and put your politically correct leanings on hold while we look back at a time when Jennifer Love Hewitt was the ‘It Girl’ for young men everywhere.

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With a massive who’s who cast of young stars and up-and-comers, Can’t Hardly Wait‘s writer-director team of Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont foresaw the looming teen boom on the horizon as big screen producers looked to exploit the massive buzz surrounding stars of newfound television hits such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek, Party of Five and “smart teen” films like 1996’s Scream. And what a cast they assembled! Including the aforementioned Love Hewitt, it includes starring roles for Ethan Embry, Charlie Korsmo, Lauren Ambrose, Peter Facinelli and Seth Green. Supporting roles feature Robert Jayne, Michelle Brookhurst, Joel Michaely, Jay Paulson, Chris Owen, Jason Segel, Clea Duvall, Jaime Pressly, Tamala Jones, Channon Roe, Sean Patrick Thomas, Freddy Rodriguez, Erik Palladino, Donald Faison, Paige Moss, Eric Balfour, Selma Blair, Jennifer Paz, Sara Rue, Nicole Bilderback, Leslie Grossman, Marisol Nichols, and Vicellous Reon Shannon.

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Wow! Did I miss anyone? Oh yes I did; these stars pop up uncredited: Melissa Joan Hart, Jenna Elfman, Jerry O’Connell, Breckin Meyer, Amber Benson, Jennifer Elise Cox and Jennifer Lyons. With a cast like that, how could you go wrong? Turns out, the filmmakers worried that plenty was going wrong during production, but we’ll get to that later.

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It’s Spring-time at Huntington High School and graduation means new adventures for hundreds of young adults looking to leave the nest and spread their wings to embark on college and job opportunities, but not before that one last party, a party to end all parties, a party that could mean redemption for Preston Meyers (Ethan Embry, Vegas Vacation, Empire Records), a schlub who missed the boat freshman year when new arrival, angelic Amanda Beckett (Jennifer Love Hewitt, I Know What You Did Last Summer, TV’s Party of Five and Ghost Whisperer), winds up with cocky asshole jock Mike Dexter (Peter Facinelli, Twilight, TV’s Fastlane and Supergirl), who scoops her up while bumbling shy-guy Preston holds on to a note he wrote her four years ago while watching the relationship from the sidelines (and from his messy, beat up vintage 70s Cadillac).

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So with graduation out of the way, Preston decides it wouldn’t be a bad idea to attend the end-of-year house bash, especially after learning that Facinelli’s Dexter has dumped Love Hewitt’s Amanda in anticipation of the for-sure-love-train that is college life. Could this be it? Could this be the stage Preston’s been waiting for to finally declare his love for Amanda and live happily ever after? With that old note he wrote in hand, he braves the liquored up craziness with high hopes but it won’t be easy; after four years, she still has no idea who he is.

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I was all of 22 when Can’t Hardly Wait arrived at our local theater (I caught it a few months later on home video, probably on VHS), so I was right in that sweet spot for the demographic they were after. It may have been a film about a high school grad party, but the rager they throw in the movie looks like many 90s college parties I attended back in the day (although my parties weren’t attended by Jaime Pressly – big disappointment!).

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Seeing the film today–over 20 years later–I can see why we were excited to watch it. We were over a decade removed from 80s teen favorites like Revenge of the Nerds, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and all those fondly-remembered John Hughes films. For those of us who were teens in the 90s, we didn’t get much love in the kids-behaving-badly department, except for a couple deviations (like Dazed and Confused), so it was fun seeing a rowdy bunch of youngsters partying it up and reminding us that our generation was able to have a good time, too.

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Originally titled “The Party,” the writer/director team of Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont (A Very Brady Sequel, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, Josie and the Pussycats) sought to make a wild, crazy party film that would stand with those teen classics from earlier eras. But this was the 90s…and the beginning of the politically correct era. Skittish distributors weren’t comfortable with aspects of Kaplan and Elfont’s realistic(ish) take on the teen party genre and mandated a PG-13 rating thinking it would bring in a nostalgic audience along with the teen crowd. There are no scenes featuring drug use and, according to a commentary track recorded in the late 90s, many scenes had to be edited and toyed with to mask alcohol consumption at the party (the most egregious and hilarious example is a scene where they were forced to use CGI to turn a woman’s beer can into a balloon; you can see her hold the balloon awkwardly in the background and then bring it up to her lips and bring it back down–instead of drinking out of a can, it looks like she’s blowing up a balloon–awkwardly).

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But a party is just a party; the writers also needed some heart to go along with the shenanigans. Along with Preston and Amanda’s will-they-or-won’t-they, we get a side story featuring nerd William’s (Charlie Korsmo, Hook, What About Bob?) vendetta against Facinelli’s Mike Dexter; William plans to humiliate Dexter with the help of some fellow nerds (it’s funny how they write these nerdy characters being big Star Wars fans, before it was cool to obsess over such pop culture iconography)…and in a sweeter thread, Preston’s best friend, antisocial and tomboyish Denise (Lauren Ambrose, Psycho Beach Party, Wanderlust) gets herself locked in the bathroom with old crush Kenny (Seth Green of the Austin Powers films) which leads to a rekindled friendship (and then some!).

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Occasionally, the film breaks from its relative realism with some surreal, goofy moments that, judging by the filmmakers’ contemporaneous commentary, may have been because they weren’t liking how it was coming together; scenes that should have been more risque and R-rated had to be tamped down due to that ordered PG-13 rating, causing the filmmakers to question most scenes during shooting and wonder if any of it was going to be funny or usable. In the end, it comes together for the most part thanks to the smart casting of all those up-and-coming young stars and a solid soundtrack featuring music from different eras (according to the filmmakers, they were happy they didn’t make Can’t Hardly Wait in the early 90s when grunge music ruled the airwaves; by 1998, the mainstream were listening to many different genres).

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Special consideration must be given to an uncredited Melissa Joan Hart as the “yearbook girl” and Michelle Brookhurst as the “party host.” Hart was already a couple seasons into her sitcom, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, when Kaplan and Elfont asked her if she’d be interested in the role; to their surprise she said yes, and she’s clearly enjoying herself playing to the hilt that annoying girl who wants nothing more than to nag everyone to sign her effing yearbook! But for my money, it’s Brookhurst as the high-strung party host who’s clearly having the most fun. She goes all in, transforming herself from a well-kept, inviting host to a frazzled, frustrated babysitter of sloshed teens by movie’s end…without once ever threatening to stop the party! (Michelle Brookhurst, whatever happened to you? You should have done more films!) Jenna Elfman’s uncredited turn as an angel stripper is also fun.

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Since this movie was produced in the 20th century, some younger viewers will cringe at some of the more un-PC moments. In one scene, Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Amanda is being consoled by her cousin (“only by marriage!“), who proceeds to jump her bones with a lip-smacker that would land him in jail by circa-2017 standards (yet it was alcohol consumption the producers worried most about in 1998?)…and in another scene, Peter Facinelli’s Mike Dexter is rebuffed by Hewitt when he realizes he shouldn’t have dumped her. As she walks away and he stands in the middle of the silent room full of party-goers watching the situation unfold, out of nowhere someone breaks the silence and yells out a gay slur.

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The entire party busts out laughing. It was a realistic moment for 1998 when people joked like that more freely. In the first commentary on the Blu-ray disc recorded around the time the movie came out, the filmmakers reference it as “the scene where some people thought we were homophobes,” before shrugging it off and moving on. In the other commentary, recorded in 2008 during the film’s 10-year anniversary, they literally talk over the scene to the point where it’s drowned out and they make no mention of it. It’s an interesting point of discussion; in 1998, the Internet was just beginning to pick up steam and we were a good 15-plus years away from the social media boom that now acts as a sort of “moral police” on such matters. Filmmakers Kaplan and Elfont were portraying how teens spoke and acted in the late 90s, albeit exaggerated (it’s a movie, after all) — with the good and bad that comes with it (on the 90s-era commentary track, writer-director Kaplan hilariously references a complaint as coming from “someone on the ‘net,” reminding us just how little of social consequence the Internet was at the time).

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Can’t Hardly Wait scored $25.6 million at the box office for Columbia Pictures, more than doubling its estimated production budget of $10 million (it grossed just over $8 million its opening weekend on June 12, 1998), placing 74th on the list of that year’s major releases. (For comparison, the top comedy that year–and No. 3 finisher overall–with $176.4 million, was Fox’s There’s Something About Mary; the Spielberg war drama Saving Private Ryan was the top earner at $216.5 million.)

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Mill Creek’s 20 Year Reunion Edition includes the two commentary tracks mentioned above (a contemporary track and a 10-year anniversary track) featuring the cast and filmmakers; a retrospective Huntington Hills Class of ’98 Reunion Special (26:43) from 2008 features cast and crew interviews where we learn Jennifer Love Hewitt is super sweet in real life and hard (for the guys) to do scenes with due to here spectacular, uhh, features (and loopy, boy-crazy Jennifer Lyons appears to be Girlfriend #3 in real life, too); The Making of a Teen Classic featurette (14:28), also from 2008, features interviews with Kaplan and Elfont and the same cast members from the reunion featurette on the same sets (“It was party central,” says actress Tamala Jones, “it wasn’t even like going to work; we all had drinks in the dressing room…”; The Life of the Party featurette (9:28), also from that ’08 session, has the cast discussing their own high school grad parties and their real life partying in general (“I maybe went two days to ninth grade, in my life,” explained Embry, who said he’d been suspended for fighting his freshmen year). Also included are six deleted scenes (my favorite is a girl who’s so crying-drunk that when she tells police her name and address, subtitles appear underneath the gibberish), and the music video for Smash Mouth’s cover of the 1966 4 Seasons pop song “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby,” which peaked at #27 on the US Billboard Hot 100; the video features the band playing at a faux high school gymnasium mocked up like a prom with clips from the film edited in. Near the end, a girl walks in who bears a strong resemblance to Jennifer Love Hewitt.

By 2008, J-Love was a big network TV star in the middle of her 5-season stint headlining the CBS supernatural drama, Ghost Whisperer, and sadly doesn’t appear in any of the featurettes or commentaries. Embry, meanwhile, was a better sport; despite a supporting role in Showtime’s Brotherhood (2006-2008) at the time, he participates and appears to enjoy reminiscing about the project. can't hardly wait 2

If anything can be said about the legacy of Can’t Hardly Wait, it could be that it opened the door–figuratively and literally–to a new golden age of raunchy teen party films, and if I were the filmmakers I’d still hold a grudge for that forced PG-13 rating; the very next summer, the same house that hosted Can’t Hardly Wait‘s party was used in a little Universal Pictures film called American Pie. That R-rated comedy would take in over $100 million domestically in 1999 as the 20th-highest grossing film that year, launching a teen comedy franchise that includes eight films (as of this writing) and, perhaps, stealing the limelight that could’ve been Can’t Hardly Wait‘s had Kaplan and Elfont’s R-rated vision been fully realized. As it stands, it remains a fun little time capsule of life in the late 90s that gave us young movie fans a taste of what was to come.

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