Cops and detectives are my cinematic weak spot. Very little pleases me more than a good mystery, wrapped in powerhouse acting, sprinkled with clever dialogue and topped with a dash of stylish direction. On the other hand, I feel the polar opposite about soap opera "drama", especially when it's delivered by characters that are any younger than 30. Still, I can see why it makes sense to combine the two, since they both hinge on clever, rebellious protagonists, thuggish romantic rivalries and manipulative, calculating women. All of these elements come together wonderfully in Brick, writer/director Rian Johnson's 2005 cult flick starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in one of his best performances. Now, four years later, we have Assassination of a High School President, a movie with brief flashes of similar ingenuity that ends up falling more than halfway short while bending over backwards to be twice as cool.
Bobby Funke (Reece Daniel Thompson) -- not to be confused with Bob Funk -- is such a nerd that even his fellow school paper geeks at St. Donovan's Catholic High don't really like him. The movie doesn't really give much of a reason for Bobby's social disconnect, although I'd say it's because his interest in journalism doesn't seem to go beyond wanting to get into a prestigious summer program and referencing Woodward and Bernstein at every opportunity. Bobby gets his big break when his editor (and the girl he'd like to take to homecoming), Clara (Melonie Diaz), assigns him to a profile on the school's biggest success story, class president Paul Moore (Patrick Taylor). Around the same time, the school's completed SATs go missing, sending Principal Kirkpatrick (Bruce Willis) on the hunt to find the culprit.
Assassination of a High School President is a case study of style over substance. Brick is drenched in the film noir atmosphere it creates, but that's because it's taking the mystery plot more seriously than the high school elements. Assassination, conversely, is far more concerned with the jokey juxtaposition of its two colliding elements than it is the plot our hero is ostensibly wrapped up in. The film opens with a long-winded chunk of exposition from Bobby that sets the tone right off the bat -- phrases like "more crooked than a case of scoliosis" clatter loudly across the screen while Thompson does a painfully flat private-eye routine. To make things worse, director Brett Simon has nothing in his arsenal to stack up against numerous stunning scenes in Johnson's film, such as the sound-design foot chase or endlessly clever editing; aside from a nice shot here and there, the direction in Assassination is almost entirely straightforward.
Bobby's profile on Paul quickly turns into an expose when he discovers that Paul may be the notorious test thief. Once again, it's not entirely clear to me why Bobby comes to this conclusion, other than sheer boredom and/or the fact that Kirkpatrick accuses Bobby of the crime. Convinced nonetheless, Bobby interviews the school nurse (Kathryn Morris) and basketball coach (Michael Rapaport), who provide the vaguest bits of circumstantial evidence, and immediately writes his piece pinning the crime on Moore. It'd be nice to think that screenwriters Tim Calpin and Kevin Jakubowski had an arc for Bobby in which he starts out believing himself to be a great detective and quickly discovers otherwise on the hard-boiled path to truth and redemption, but if this is the idea, the film is too scattershot for the any of it to be noticeable. Assassination's MacGuffin is the mystery itself: Bobby is motivated to solve the truth for no other reason than he tells himself that he hasn't found it yet. Scene after scene starts with Bobby reiterating that he knows something's up but he hasn't figured out all the details, and it stretches this 93-minute movie into a minor eternity.
The wild card in Bobby's investigation is Francesca Fachini (Mischa Barton), the Hottest Girl in School. She takes an interest to Bobby, and the young investigative journalist wonders if blowing the lid off of the SAT crimes will jeopardize his blossoming relationship. Barton's show "The OC" is a prime example of what I meant when I said I hated youth soap operas, and her performance here feels borrowed from the long-defunct WB network. There are traces of charisma in there somewhere, lingering around the edges, but she's taken the worst role in this movie and delivers exactly the kind of off-putting performance the filmmakers obviously want. The rest of the younger cast members, aside from Thompson, do their best with what they get and score a laugh here and there, but it's mostly in vain; the movie has an excess of characters, and most of the screen time is eaten up by Bobby's narration and endless wandering.
All that said, there is a major redeeming factor in the movie, and that's Bruce Willis. I recently criticized him for napping through Surrogates, but he's wide awake in this one. I'm not sure if the performance could considered "good" from a legitimate acting standpoint, because it's all over the map, with Bruce alternating from yell to whisper at the drop of a hat and never seeming to have any clear character motivation, but every time he pops up on screen (like a ninja -- Kirkpatrick enters from everywhere and leaves through nowhere), it's markedly funnier than anything else in the movie. Whether he's singing a song that Kirkpatrick apparently wrote about America, joking about erections or angered by Bobby's gum (the film's substitute for cigarettes), Willis really makes the movie more interesting than it has any right to be. He even ad-libs the film's most outrageous line early in the film, after a trashy girl talks back to him. Michael Rapaport also has a short-but-funny scene, and it's a shame his character basically vanishes (his two scenes together couldn't possibly total even six minutes).
The film eventually drags itself to a conclusion that seems both overly complicated and incredibly obvious. The nitty-gritty details of the mystery are filled with twists and turns that seem like they aren't worth the trouble that Bobby goes through to unravel them, and yet, the film ends up focusing on the one twist that anyone versed in the genre should see coming before they've even put the disc in the player. The film tops it all off with the ultimate sour note: an entirely unearned homage to an all-time classic. Bobby keeps quoting Carl Bernstein and thinking about his journalistic future, but Assassination of a High School President is a fluff piece of a movie, foiled by filmmakers who are busy thinking about the glossy cover, the spreadsheet graphics and the photo op rather than anything beneath the surface.
It used to be that big heads just floated in the clouds or sky, with no rhyme or reason, but I guess the current generation of digital artists thinks "inspired" design involves placing said heads in some sort of object or shape rather than just hanging them in the ether. No, both sides of this basic DVD cover are lame, featuring some obvious Photoshop and cramped space on the back. The disc just has black paint for the lettering on the silver disc surface, and the whole package comes in a dreaded Eco-Box with no insert.
The Video and Audio
This is a grainy film, with a few extremely wide shots enhancing the grain in this 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation just a little bit further. Other than that, the transfer looks pretty good, although as usual, I feel like it exhibits the weird "new Sony" contrast filter I always see on their DVDs, where it looks like a low layer of darkness been laid over the entire picture, which turns all the whites slightly gray and darkens all the colors. It's not a detraction, but I swear it's there.
English Dolby Digital 5.1 sounds pretty good, with plenty of directional effects in the crowded Catholic high school, which in and of itself is heightened by the stylistic touches of the film. English subtitles are included, but no alternate language audio or subtitles are present.
Simon, Calpin and Jakubowski congregate for an audio commentary that reveals the film's numerous issues were all apparently worse at some point. Simon opens by commenting that the screenplay didn't even start for 40 pages and claiming that they fixed several issues in editing, a statement which, I, of course, dispute. All three participants seem slightly detached, almost as if they're purposefully embracing the genial outcome of their movie rather than ignoring it or over-praising it. These guys do have a low-key sense of humor, but the track is mostly frustrating: it makes you wonder what the movie might've been like if they'd hired some additional writers and a director who seemed more invested or passionate about the project.
Two alternate opening scenes (5:41) are included. I can't believe either of these weren't used; I suppose the first one spells the plot out a little too much, but Thompson gives a considerably better performance in both of them than he does in the film and either is a stronger setup for the film than the existing opening. The same three guys provide optional commentary, but their reasoning for cutting the material doesn't hold water, in my opinion. A further batch of alternate and extended scenes (20:42) contain a few additional lines of good informative dialogue, although the loss of a fart joke and additional complications to the ending are not as distressing as the other opening sequences hitting the cutting room floor (with commentary on about half of them). Finally, a short reel of deleted scenes (6:46) -- which actually contains two scenes I'd define as extended -- with more commentary wraps things up.
Trailers for The Informers, Black Dynamite and The Accidental Husband play before the menu, while a "Blu-Ray Disc is High Definition!" ad and additional trailers for Blood: The Last Vampire, Year One, The Maiden Heist, Hardwired (oh good Lord, Val, what have you done to your hair?), Fireflies in the Garden, Dark Country, Fragments, The Ugly Truth, Adoration and "Rescue Me": Season 5 are accessible from the special features menu. No subtitles are provided for any of the DVD bonus features.
I really wish the rest of Assassination of a High School President was as ridiculously off-the-wall as Bruce Willis' ludicrously funny performance, because I'd love to wholeheartedly recommend the movie just for him. Unfortunately, this is a warmed-over rehash of better films, both contemporary and classic. Rent one of those better examples of film noir and skip this until it's on cable and you can TiVo to the Bruce Willis parts.
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