Third-Grade Student: "Are we going to learn anything today, or are we just going to sit here again and watch you mope about your divorce?"
Teacher: "...You know what, Frankie...why don't you go f--- yourself."
Lower Learning follows the same formula as David Wain's 2001 camp comedy Wet Hot American Summer. Taking place over the course of one day at Geraldine Ferraro Elementary School, we cut back and forth between various teachers and their almost self-enclosed plot threads. From the DVD box art and theatrical trailer, I wouldn't fault anyone expecting this movie to give The Hottie and the Nottie or The Love Guru a run for their money in the depressingly bad comedy arena, and it doesn't help that it only takes one minute and forty-six seconds for a kid to stop what he's doing and squeeze out a massive fart, but what I found funny was the performances by the talented comedic cast and the screenplay's occasionally ludicrous plot developments.
Principal Billings (Rob Corddry) is uninterested in both education, and the children at his crumbling school, aside from the ones who pour his tea and file his nails with gloved hands. When questioned by Vice Principal Tom Willowman (Jason Biggs) about a district inspector who's on the way, he replies, "Don't be a hero." He wants the school to close. Corddry is an old hand at playing the dickish blowhard, and he doesn't waver from the formula, kicking rubber balls at kids' heads and extorting their parents when he's not ordering lobster-grams to his office or intimidating faculty in the men's room. Whether or not you like Lower Learning will factor primarily on whether you like Corddry's comic persona (he even brings Daily Show co-conspirator Ed Helms along, in a similarly Ed-Helmsian role).
As Tom, Jason Biggs takes terrible news with mild amusement. Adelle (Dannika Northcott) and a boy are sent into his office. "Jasper put gravy all in my hair," she complains. "I can see that," Tom replies. He looks at the boy. "Where did you find gravy at eight 'o clock in the morning?" I've always liked Jason Biggs, in both the American Pie series and miscalculations like Boys and Girls and Loser, and he's easily likable in the movie. While he tends to appear in physical comedies, here he takes the straight-man role and does it well, even forming some noticeable chemistry with the district inspector, Rebecca Seabrook (Eva Longoria Parker), whose smoking, pill-popping, drinking, tobacco-chewing and whip-cream/paint-huffing habits are the only thing keeping Tom from making the move he wanted to make at the prom years earlier.
While I'm not sure anyone in this movie is regarded as an A-list comedian, the entire cast is filled out by seasoned pros. Will Sasso plays a gym teacher despondent over the dissolution of his marriage to fellow teacher Laura (Monica Potter). Nat Faxon is a socially inept man-child with a turtle obsession trying to mack on the beautiful Nurse Gretchen (Jill Latiano) and failing miserably. Some teachers are barely even defined, like Kyle Gass, who pops up occasionally to hiss at people (literally), and whose character name, IMDb tells me, is Decatur Doublewide. The cast is rounded out by a hit-or-miss group of children. Dannika Northcott, as the gravy-haired girl, is the best, ever-cheerful around Tom even when singing her father's song about social workers coming to take her away.
Much is made out of how the kids act like adults, which is far from a fresh joke, and their performances are not exactly Oscar-caliber. The plot also rears its head whenever the movie's comedic momentum is ramping up, and it'd be far more satisfying to see the film ignore or poke fun at the plot with more lunacy than to expect the audience to be invested. This is also a small little movie, and I imagine watching it on the big screen might have been slightly excruciating. It's better when the movie's demented verve outsizes the production itself, and watching it on a TV probably makes its "wackiness" seem a lot less forced.
I don't want to make Lower Learning out to be some kind of lost gem that got shuffled over in a busy market. Comedy is wildly subjective, and just because I laughed at this movie doesn't mean anyone else will find it funny. On the other hand, Lower Learning contains Corddry, Biggs, Sasso, Nat Faxon, Ed Helms, Kyle Gass, and several other recognizable bit players from the same circles, so it's hard to imagine someone who would find every single joke in the movie resoundingly unfunny. While I'm not saying it's on the same level by any stretch of the imagination, fans of Wet Hot may want to give it a spin or catch it on cable.
The DVD comes in a standard keepcase with a slipcover, both with the same dopey cover art that doesn't make much sense nor "sells" the movie in any conceivable way. Inside, we get an insert that -- oh joy -- has the same art yet again, and chapter selection on the other side. The disc has the same photo of an apple on it as the chapter side of the insert, and the back cover has more terrible Photoshop. I'm also pretty sure that the photo of Corddry drinking a beer on the back is not from Lower Learning.
One of the surprising things about the film is how good it looks, as far as David Robert Jones' cinematography. The movie wears its budget well, and the DVD's 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation does a so-so job of presenting that. It looks a little fuzzy and the colors look a little mushy whenever the characters are in the bright sunlight, but indoor scenes have a more natural look, especially with a bit of shade on them.
Front channels are the order of the day. Occasionally, a song or two will play partially on the rear speakers, but on the whole everything is front and center in this Dolby 5.1 surround sound track. As usual, the track does its limited work well enough that nobody should complain, but this is not going to give your home theater setup a workout.
English captions are provided for the deaf and hard of hearing.
"The ABC's of Lower Learning" (13:47) is fairly dull (writer/director Mark Lafferty, Corddry, Biggs and Longoria are the only interviewees, if it makes a difference) and predictably contains scads of footage from the same film you (presumably) just watched. Easily skippable.
26:04 of deleted scenes and outtakes follow, and while anyone who liked the feature film should get a laugh or two, be warned that the last scene here is eleven minutes worth of disappointingly unfunny outtakes of Ed Helms improvising phone calls to Corddry's character. The highlights are near the beginning: Nat Faxon's creepy teacher gets more chances to shine, and so does Timothy Dowling, improvising as a psychotic ice-cream-cart robber with bizarre demands.
The terrible theatrical trailer, with awful music designed to play up the movie's supposed aw-shucks goofiness, is also included, as is a pre-menu trailer for The Grand. The features are also subtitled in English.
Lower Learning has a 3.5/10 rating on the Internet Movie Database, which leads me to believe that most of you should probably Netflix it before plunking down for a purchase, but since this is my review and not that of the users of IMDb (who probably just voted it down based on the trailer anyway), I'm going to give it a much more respectable 3.5/5 and recommend it to carefully discerning aficionados of crude humor or fans of the cast. Just don't blame me if you don't like it.
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