Betty Thomas may be the most underrated comedy director now working. Sure, the industry knows her, but the public and press don't speak of her the same way they do the highly hit-and-miss Ivan Reitman or Farrelly Brothers. But she certainly has "the touch"-the one that can take an outré idea and make it live in that seemingly impossible comic place between lighter-than-air and down-to-earth. She accomplished it in The Brady Bunch Movie and its sequel-successful homages and parodies simultaneously-and the potentially squirm-inducing Howard Stern movie Private Parts. If Doctor Dolittle and the awful I Spy didn't feel like they had the touch, well, Eddie Murphy was the 800-pound gorilla with his paws all over those.

Thomas is back in form with John Tucker Must Die, a high-school revenge comedy that aims at a teen audience yet manages to be witty without being snarky or sophomoric. If you think that's a small accomplishment, ask yourself how often a Clueless or a Fast Times at Ridgemont High arrives. You can also ask how many teen-girl comedies can make a 14-year-old Manhattan male laugh throughout, as our youth sample did.

The titular Tucker ("Desperate Housewives" hottie Jesse Metcalfe) is the local lothario and basketball star of Forest Hills High School, somewhere in America's Pacific Northwest. (The film, shot at Heritage Woods Secondary School in well-heeled Port Moody, near Vancouver, B.C., uses that school's real-life Kodiak mascot and logo.) The king of this particular hill-admired by guys, desired by girls-he casually takes advantage. Through a ruse that allows him to keep his shenanigans secret, he simultaneously dates African-American cheerleading captain Heather (R&B singer Ashanti), blonde school broadcast-reporter Carrie (Arielle Kebbel) and brunette vegan Beth (Sophia Bush), pledging to each that she and he share a "very special" bond.

Unfortunately for him, all the girls' phys-ed classes are thrown together one day, and, well, girls talk. They also catfight and aim volleyballs at one another in a scene that actually plays like a Noel Coward cross of The Group and The Three Stooges. The three duped dames get thrown into detention, along with bystander brawler Kate (Brittany Snow)-a cute wallflower who's developed sense and sensibility in lieu of sociability, given her hot mom's (Jenny McCarthy) bad taste in men and frequent moves to start anew. Heather, Carrie and Beth recruit Kate, despite herself, to help them take revenge. After the unsuspecting Tucker turns a couple of less-than-believable attempts on his reputation around to his advantage, the three fateful girls then persuade Kate to let herself be made over as the girl of Tucker's dreams. Equipped with a covert mini-cam and two-way audio, Kate's going to set him up for a huge public embarrassment.

Thomas' direction and the script by sitcom writer Jeff Lowell, in his feature-film debut, don't take the usual paths. Kate's undercover conflict isn't the expected one about falling for Tucker for real, but about the morality of what she's doing, and the weighing of that with essentially vigilante justice. And Tucker himself isn't a caddish caricature, but an adolescent simply behaving in what he thinks is a suave way; there's nothing misanthropic about him, and quite a lot that's decent albeit misguided-giving this whole enterprise a human edge that enhances the humor. Just don't tell a teenager that.

-Frank Lovece