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The movie market is such a risky proposition these days that it's a miracle when ambitious talent gets a fair shot at the brass ring. With independent distribution outfits going belly up without warning, the likelihood is thinner than ever that a film deal will survive long enough for a project to make it to release. Finished in late 2007, Assassination of a High School President was left adrift when its makers filed for bankruptcy. The film was stuck on the shelf in legal limbo despite making a notable showing at Sundance early in 2008. Now its big debut is on DVD, a fate its makers surely didn't want. But that's exactly what's happening to more than few movies, some of them even higher profile efforts -- as with last year's In the Electric Mist.
Assassination of a High School President has solid commercial potential for a picture with a first-time director, Brett Simon. Its basic idea is to transpose the double-crosses and intrigues of detective noir to the halls of High School. Simon and his writers Tim Calpin and Kevin Jakubowski then play games with the gross-out teen satire formula, creating a number of fun characterizations along the way.
A Catholic high school is the setting for a hardboiled conspiracy, scaled to fit classrooms, hallways and a gymnasium. Ambitious St.Donovan Sophomore Bobby Funke (Reece Daniel Thompson) is regularly humiliated by the sadistic senior mafia but remains determined to win a journalism scholarship. When the militaristic martinet Principal Kirkpatrick (Bruce Willis) finds that someone has stolen all of the SAT tests from the office safe, Funke uses Philip Marlowe detection skills to find the culprit -- who turns out to be class President and superstar Jock Paul Moore (Patrick Taylor). Bobby's Pulitzer-grade article on the investigation wins him the journalism award and elevates him to BMOC status as well. His life ruined, Paul terrorizes a class assembly with a paintball gun, and is sent to an asylum. But Bobby begins to suspect that the whole episode was a setup, that Paul was framed. Paul's impossibly sexy girlfriend Francesca Fachini (Mischa Barton) takes a serious interest in Bobby, but he's soon back on the case, figuring out what really happened.
Assassination of a High School President works because high school politics are just silly enough to support a far-fetched conspiracy: the pressure on academic and social superstars can motivate some pretty underhanded schemes. Unkempt Bobby Funke is very much a sawed-off Elliott Gould type from The Long Goodbye -- people are always mispronouncing his name. Bobby's an outsider and a sexually inexperienced nerd, but he shrewdly intuits that everyone around him has a dirty secret to hide. He's been lumped in with the school delinquents just for being different and anti-authoritarian, and he's regularly pummeled by a cadre of senior goons who seem to belong to some kind of secret club. Bobby also contributes a hardboiled narration, some of which actually works in a self-conscious way:
"Paul was a good kid. Maybe his bum knee wasn't so bad. Maybe my puff piece was no pastry."
"None of these bad apples had stolen the tests. Their alibis were like Dutch ovens, gamey but airtight."
Simon and his writers have an excellent hold on the broader aspects of the story. They take advantage of the general rule that most anything said by a kid in a private school uniform is funny. Assassination warps High School movie clichés into the context of a detective thriller with relative ease -- even the "student driver" scene works. They also avoid the "I'm so smart" attitude taken by far too many imitators of trendy filmmakers of the last twenty years: Tarantino, Linklater, Anderson, Jonze, Kaufman. The only really unnecessary reference happens at the end, when Bobby is advised, "Forget it Funke, it's High School".
Assassination of a High School President would probably never have been funded if the detective spoof was its only calling card. Writers Calpin and Jakubowski, credited as production assistants and advisors on the South Park show, load the dialogue with the latest in gross sexual bon mots; at this high school, most everyone but Bobby thinks and speaks like their heads are three feet down a toilet. As that is the definite trend in youth comedy these days, it's to be expected:
"Oh Gertrude. My anaconda is sore and it needs a massage."
"I feel bad for him. He's totally gaga for that cum-dumpster."
"Landis? Do I walk down to the strip club where you work and knock the dick out of your mouth?"
Assassination does well with its peripheral characters, like Clara (Melonie Diaz) the distrustful editor of the school paper, and Ricky Delacruz (Vincent Piazza), a particularly profane school troublemaker. The student population looks typically over-aged but there are some fine types, like Bobby's snarky competitor for the journalism prize and a curious girl with an eye patch. Gabrielle Brennan is appropriately snotty as Chrissie Moore, who Bobby must bribe with toy unicorns to get the dirt on her older brother. Luke Grimes has the bad-boy looks to serve well as Marlon Piazza, Francesca's creepy step-brother. Kathryn Morris is excellent as the bored-to-distraction school nurse, who clearly Doesn't Give a Damn about anything but snack time.
The higher-billed actors are more problematical. Formerly bankable Bruce Willis isn't all that interesting as the hard-assed Desert Storm fanatic who runs the School and leads a student rally in a militaristic rap song. Principal Kirkpatrick dishes out threats that nobody takes seriously, and Willis seems miscast as a guy with no sense of humor. Michael Rappaport rates the billing block but plays a forgettable coach; Josh Pais is much funnier as Spanish teacher Señor Newell, who overpronounces everything. The writers show plenty of sensitivity when dealing with the ethical Bobby Funke, and also surprise us with some unexpected grace notes. The presumed school slut Samantha Landis (Tanya Fischer) hides the fact that she spends her off time practicing her ice-skating moves.
Top-billed Mischa Barton is the sexy Francesca Fachini, the femme fatale dream girl who gravitates immediately to Bobby when her prom date is taken to the local asylum. A star from TV's The O.C.", Mischa Barton seems to be trying to make her move into feature status. Hers are the only nude scenes. She makes an intimidating bad girl when she presents herself as bait for the distractible Bobby. Of course, Melonie Diaz's more down-to-earth alternative is waiting in the wings, like Glenda Farrell or Joan Blondell.
If it wasn't for Assassination's sticky vein of gross humor I'd be wanting to show it to my friends but there's no denying that the film is more sophisticated than the brainless raunch that now passes for comedy. Brett Simon's movie showcases a lot of emerging talent, especially its star Reece Daniel Thompson. After putting this much good work into a show it must be galling to be denied a crack at a more prestigious venue, so I'm rooting for its success.
Sony's DVD of Assassination of a High School President is a good enhanced coding of this very widescreen production; the few audiences to see it projected on a screen were surely impressed by its smart cinematography. Picture and audio are fine in all respects. Sony starts the show with a tall stack of trailer promos.
Director Simon and his writers Calpin and Jakubowski are on hand for the commentary track. They're clearly auditioning as cool new talents ready to be tapped -- and there is talent there. They tell us which jokes went over big at Sundance and which didn't; I guess ball-bag humor isn't in. They found their perfect Catholic High School in Bayonne New Jersey. They mention that they wanted their film to be the antithesis of the High School Musical fantasy with its bright lighting and deep focus. In sampling the track I didn't hear any discussion of the release delay; perhaps the commentary was recorded before all that happened.
Simon and his writers also narrate tracks over a number of alternate, extended and deleted scenes, none of which will be missed. The so-so cover art doesn't help this entertaining comedy stand out from the competition.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.