Throwback Thursday: Sweet and funny ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ (1998) stands as a generation’s benchmark graduation party film (Movie review)

T

here are ’90s teen movies with more shock value, but “Can’t Hardly Wait” (1998) is the one I point to as the “American Graffiti” of my generation – a sweet, universal story featuring every archetype under the sun, and darn near every notable young actor of the period. It doesn’t lean into the “end of an era” vibe as much as the purposely nostalgic “Graffiti,” as it’s much more of a comedy, but it ultimately strikes that note anyway, almost catching a viewer off guard after all the laughs.

Films that bounce between numerous character threads for the sake of creating a pastiche are almost always watchable, because even you’re bored by some threads, you don’t have to wait long for an entertaining one. But about 90 percent of the threads in “CHW” are winners.

The only thread that doesn’t click with me is the exploits of the two nerd friends of Charlie Korsmo’s William – Joel Michaely and Jay Paulson, credited as “X-Phile No. 1” and “X-Phile No. 2.” Prototypes of sorts for Andrew and Jonathan in “Buffy” Season 6, they wear “X-Files” shirts and have a flashlight lightsaber duel while wondering what William is doing at the party. Ironically, their scenes probably totally landed in 1998, but pop-culture references – particularly such mainstream ones – aren’t nearly as fresh anymore.

It doesn’t lean into the “end of an era” vibe as much as the purposely nostalgic “American Graffiti,” as it’s much more of a comedy, but it ultimately strikes that note anyway, almost catching a viewer off guard after all the laughs.

Another sequence dates “CHW” in a good way: Preston (Ethan Embry, in his iconic turn as the Everydude) has to make a phone call to Barry Manilow, by way of a radio station, to ask if “Mandy” is about a dog or a woman named Amanda. This was just before the era of cellphones, so Preston uses a phone booth. He crosses paths with an advice-giving “angel” (Jenna Elfman) in the empty parking lot of an “American Graffiti”-era neon-lit diner. This sequence also allows the film to take a breather from the potential claustrophobia of the party house.

Although one of the writer-director team is a woman (Deborah Kaplan, working with Harry Elfont; they went on to make “Josie and the Pussycats”), “CHW” is slightly more of a guys’ movie. Preston is the de facto main character; throughout high school, he has longed after Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Amanda, who for much of the film is an object – arguably even a maguffin, something whose soul purpose is to move the plot forward.

Preston adores her from afar, and he’s less creepy about it than the guys who line up after Mike (Peter Facinelli) dumps her. After all, a hand-written letter is classier than telling her he got a huge boner while dancing with her at the sock-hop, as is the strategy of Victor Togunde’s Reminiscing Guy.

But still, Preston knows nothing about Amanda, and if he’s in love with her, it’s clearly because he’s invented a fictional person who looks like her in his head. Even in flashbacks when he first sees her, he doesn’t get a good look; her face is hidden behind her hair. Additionally, Amanda herself admits that she doesn’t know who she is outside of her relationship with Mike, who she never really liked anyway. And her yearbook profile lists her future plans as “undecided.”

From a guy’s perspective, though, this is all relatable, and “CHW” even has its cake and eats it, too, giving us both a scene of Amanda ripping into Preston (lumping him in with the less sweet-natured guys), and later realizing he’s the letter writer and tracking him down at the train station. This is pure wish fulfillment for viewers who see themselves in Preston, and it’s arguably a dangerous message about believing in fairy tale endings.

But this whole darn movie is so cute that most of the borderline stuff gets swept away. Particularly adorable are Kenny (Seth Green) and Denise (Lauren Ambrose), who get locked in a bathroom and eventually begin to openly communicate, with Kenny dropping his affected gangsta persona. They used to be friends, then drifted apart for petty reasons vaguely relating to social status – but both admit they always felt bad when making fun of their former bestie.

Little throwaway riffs are delightful, too, including Melissa Joan Hart as the girl who wants the whole senior class to sign her yearbook. I had forgotten how many future stars and familiar faces have tiny roles in “CHW,” including Jason Segel as Watermelon Guy, Selma Blair as Girl Mike Hits On No. 1, and Jerry O’Connell as a cautionary tale that Mike humorously receives too late. “Buffy” fans are probably familiar with the trivia that Amber Benson is in the film, too, and she originally had a bigger role as Stoned Girl before edits were made for the ratings board.

It all adds up to a harmlessly likable movie, and it has enough lovable characters that it stands the test of time even though there’s no pie-humping and when people drink beer in “CHW” it contains no surprise ingredients. Even the presence of Smashmouth’s “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby” in the soundtrack can’t tear this movie down.