Let’s start by forgetting the complaint that Amanda Bynes in drag doesn’t look like a real high school soccer player — she doesn’t need to. Remember that Gwyneth Paltrow fooled all the other characters (as well as Academy voters) in “Shakespeare in Love” when she pretended to be Thomas Kent. Consider also that Felicity Huffman really did look like a man in “Transamerica” but deservedly left the Kodak Theater empty-handed. What am I trying to say? That Amanda Bynes should win an Oscar? No. But she deserves credit for pulling off a strong comedic performance in a worthwhile film, whether she could have used a pair of testicles or not.
It’s sometimes easy to forget just how ambitious “She’s the Man” is. Borrowing from Shakespeare’s canonical “Twelfth Night,” the film risks butchery, failure and even sacrilege. But by remaining half-sincere and mostly silly, “She’s the Man” succeeds as a creative adaptation that the Bard himself might have enjoyed. Okay, that may be a bit of a stretch, but the film is funny, sexy, light-hearted and effortlessly adorable without ever succumbing to crude flatulence or bawdy laugh-tactics.
As the poster tagline aptly conveys, the plot of “She’s the Man” looks complicated on paper, but on-screen it’s really not that hard to follow. Viola (Bynes) is an unappreciated female soccer champ who impersonates her twin brother Sebastian while he’s off chasing dreams in London. She arrives at Sebastian’s school, Illyria, aiming to make first string and later defeat the team that rejected her at her former high school. Things get convoluted when she starts falling for her hunky roommate Duke Orsino (former D&G model Channing Tatum) who in turn lusts after Olivia (Laura Ramsey) who really has the hots for Viola-as-Sebastian.
This all may sound pretty gay, but “She’s the Man” is consciously benign when it comes to issues of sexual identity, opting instead for the less controversial message that girls are better than boys. Fair enough. No one, after all, will go to see this film with expectations of a cutting-edge political statement. What can be expected, though, is an audience full of young (and-not-so-young) girls (and-not-so-girls) laughing out loud and ogling at the consistently shirtless Tatum.
That is not to suggest that the plot merely serves to justify corny jokes and revealing wife-beaters. In fact, “She’s the Man” retains from Shakespeare a consuming, cumulative sense of complication. Even with a peaceful resolution firmly set on the horizon, suspense is held and held and held until the dramatic climax, making it impossible not to care just how everything will work itself out.
“But Amanda Bynes?” you implore with deep doubt. The annoying little girl from Nickelodeon’s “All That” who grew into the annoying teenaged girl on the WB’s “What I Like About You?” Yes, it’s the same girl, easily recognizable by her goofy expressions and slap-your-knee-and-pretend-to-laugh shtick, but in this film she adds a needed element of absurdity. Her odd, in-and-out “boy voice,” which sounds something like a prepubescent George W. Bush, fits in with the awkwardness that comes with assuming a new persona, while also making things funny that wouldn’t be otherwise. It is hilarious to watch Viola embarrassingly stammer and stutter as she tries to find the appropriate, manly word, and in the process addresses a group of boys as “guy-men” and finally “brethren.”
Bearing obvious comparisons to high ’90s teen pop cinema with Elizabethan panache — the enjoyable “10 Things I Hate About You” and “Get Over It” — “She’s the Man” similarly succeeds in being funny and entertaining first, loyal to Shakespeare second. And even in spite of some overused ploys (e.g. montages laced with mainstream rock) and egregiously cheesy moments, “She’s the Man” is nuts-out the funniest movie yet this side of January, and a crowning achievement for the now underrated Amanda Bynes.