Viola Hastings (Amanda Bynes) loves soccer, but when her high school shuts down the girls' team, and refuses to let the ladies join the boys' squad, Viola is left without options. When her brother Sebastian leaves secretly for Europe, Viola decides to take his identity and attempt to join the boys' team at his private school. Once there, Viola must pass as a guy, which is pretty difficult when faced with an attractive roommate (Channing Tatum), a female classmate who loves her (Laura Ramsey), and Sebastian's girlfriend (Alex Breckenridge), who wants to discuss their relationship.
It's almost hilarious to read in the opening credits that "She's the Man" was "inspired" by Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." I doubt the Bard ever imagined his work would inspire such moments as a jock sticking a tampon up his nostril to stop a nosebleed, but then again, who knew "Man" would be so funny and enchantingly wacky?
It all comes down to the Bynes factor. The young actress has been doing comedy for years now, even hosting her own sketch comedy show as an early teenager; yet in feature films ("What a Girl Wants," "Big Fat Liar"), she's been oddly muted. "Man" changes all that, giving Bynes a free pass to try out all her rubbery reactions and mine into the rich, fertile land of cross-dressing comedy. Bynes doesn't quite know when to reel herself in, going too quickly to screaming for effect, but she's endearingly madcap, and that energy is a rare commodity in her age bracket, where every actor seemingly wants to play in life affirming dramas. Bynes gets good mileage out of the Sebastian role, frantically trying to maintain her "boy" voice and suppress her female instincts toward the opposite sex, and she's mostly hilarious going through the daily male rituals. Bynes elevates the material with her spunk, and deserves most of the credit keeping "Man" away from tedium with her resolve to keep the film fluffy and silly.
Director Andy Fickman (TV's "Reefer Madness: The Musical") also wants "Man" to be a lighthearted affair. He's constantly battling the screenplay (co-written by two of the minds behind the dreadful "10 Things I Hate About You"), sticking in throwaway jokes and eccentric character business whenever he can. Every moment the film veers toward melodrama, Fickman is there to add a joke. And while the funny dissipates in the second half, Fickman surprises with his dedication to keeping "Man" comedically alive, and not succumbing to the teen genre instinct to become a squealing bore.
For every bad idea or clichéd bit of screenwriting (a carnival sequence where Viola must be both herself and Sebastian comes to mind), "She's the Man" seems to offer a surprising twist on the obvious. Simply by making the central hunky male lead dim-witted and girl repellent is a sure sign that somebody's paying attention behind the camera. Of course, the film is filled with disposable, tuneless pop punk music, montages upon montages, and an ending that incorporates both "the big game" and a formalwear event; but there's a bliss to Bynes's performance, and "She's the Man" in general, that's completely unexpected, and warmly welcomed. Maybe Shakespeare would've approved after all.
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