"You really conned them. If you got what Joey said you got, you're the biggest con man in the world. More power to you."
"It stinks to high heaven."
The text that flashes upon the screen in the opening moments of Cheats states that the movie was inspired by actual events. The quotes above are from some of the real-life participants, and though their thoughts are worded a little less delicately than I'd normally be, I can't say that I entirely disagree. Cheats, originally titled Cheaters, was initially slated for a theatrical release way back in May 2001. It was continually delayed, and a series of release dates came and went until New Line retitled the movie and dumped it on cable in November 2002. Close to two years after its aborted theatrical release, Cheats is finally making its way to home video.
Cheats was written and directed by Andrew Gurland, whose only previous film credit in either of those capacities was co-helming the staged HBO documentary Frat House. The movie follows Handsome Davis (Trevor Fehrman) and Sammy Green (Elden Henson), a pair of life-long friends who loathe school, cheating at every possible opportunity. By high school, they'd refined the process to a thing of beauty, thanks in part to their new pals Victor (Matthew Lawrence) and Jonathan "The Crib Master" Applebee (Freaks and Geeks' Martin Starr). They cheat not because they're obsessed with their grade point average, but out of rebellion for a tyrannical institution. Now seniors, they find themselves under the watchful eye of Principal Stark (Mary Tyler Moore), who's hellbent on finding some excuse to expel the lot of them. As precautions are taken to make their academic theft increasingly difficult, the cheating that brought the group together threatens to tear them apart.
Okay, take a comedy like Stealing Harvard. I thought the movie was spectacularly unfunny, but as much as it flopped and floundered in the attempt, I could tell that Stealing Harvard was at least genuinely trying to elicit a laugh. Cheats is supposed to be a comedy, I guess, but its stabs at humor are half-hearted and almost never successful. The best Cheats can muster are undetailed descriptions of 'dog porn', a girl who randomly mutters "dildo" and "douchebag", and adoption gags. It's not so much that Cheats tries to be funny and fails. It doesn't seem to even put forth the effort to make the audience laugh. Perhaps part of Cheats' downfall is that it tried to be too close to real life. Slackers, though hardly a comedic masterpiece, fared much better with its somewhat similar premise and an approach almost entirely not grounded in reality. The cheating scenarios are mostly bland, and none of the characters or middling dialogue inspire any interest. A bunch of stuff happens to a handful of one-dimensional characters who aren't very convincing as friends, and that's about the extent of it.
It's not hard to imagine why New Line didn't have enough confidence in Cheats to give it any sort of theatrical release. That didn't deter their home video division from giving the movie a rather nice release on DVD, featuring a respectable assortment of supplements and decent audio/video.
Video: Cheats is presented in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. By and large, the image looks crisp and detailed. Colors in particular shine, especially outside the confines of the sterile private school. From a garishly decorated party to the bright, sunny kindergarten classroom to the varied greens of lush foliage and chalkboards, the palette is often bright and vivid. As is not terribly uncommon for comparatively low-budget productions, film grain is present to greatly varying degrees, but it's rarely intrusive. The bit rate is kept high enough that the grain doesn't devolve into a nasty mess of video noise.
Audio: Cheats sports a pair of six-channel mixes, one in Dolby Digital 5.1 and the other in DTS (768Kbps). It's a standard issue comedy track, with dialogue firmly anchored front and center. The surrounds generally don't draw attention to themselves. Ambient sounds are mostly subtle, such as the clanging of closing lockers and voices throughout the library. To rattle off a couple of other memorable instances of ambiance, there's a slight echo during a speech at a school assembly and applause at a graduation ceremony. Quite a bit of the movie takes place in close quarters, and that obviously doesn't really provide a lot of opportunity for audio bouncing across the soundscape. The surrounds most frequently come into play when reinforcing music and for the sound effects that accompany some of the whips and flashes. There's not much in the way of subwoofer activity. I didn't do any sort of side-by-side comparison of the two six-channel soundtracks, but the DTS audio struck me as pretty ordinary for this sort of movie.
Alongside the 5.1 tracks are a stereo surround track, English subtitles, and closed captions.
Supplements: "The Real Cheats" isn't the sort of dull promotional featurette that I was expecting. Running just shy of eighteen minutes, it follows writer/director Andrew Gurland revisiting some of the folks involved with the real-life incidents that inspired the film. He seems to hope to find some sort of closure through the confrontation, but it doesn't inspire any confessions or apologies. "The Real Cheats" was shot on digital video and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. It's punctuated with clips from the movie and includes brief snippets of deleted footage not included elsewhere on this DVD, for whatever reason.
Three relatively uninteresting deleted scenes run around six and a half minutes in total. The appropriately titled "Dad goes bananas" has Handsome's father flipping out about his son's behavior, and not in some endearing, comedic way. The dark tone doesn't fit with the rest of the movie at all, and it's not difficult to see why it was cut out. Apparently some attempt was made to salvage that footage, as it snuck into the similarly excised "Dad hires a professional". Spliced together with a couple of scenes that made the final cut, a psychiatrist prattles on for a couple of minutes, informing Handsome that his job is to go to school and inspiring him to contemplate running away. The longest of the three, "Crooked penis", trots to the hospital to visit a character recovering from a stroke. None of these scenes have enough context to figure out exactly where they fit in the scheme of the movie. "Crooked penis", for instance, belongs somewhere in the final reel, but the stroke itself wasn't featured in the movie or elsewhere on the deleted scenes. Unlike the vast majority of similar footage on various DVDs, the quality is much nicer than the usual rough Avid dumps, and it's all presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Finally, there are trailers for Sugar and Spice (2:31), Little Nicky (2:35), and Drop Dead Gorgeous (2:09). All three trailers are presented in anamorphic widescreen and feature Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. A trailer for Cheats hasn't been included.
The DVD-ROM portion of the disc includes the InterActual player, the ability to play the movie in the InterActual browser, and a 'Hot Spot' link to New Line's website.
The disc's inventively designed menus are enhanced for 16x9 televisions and letterboxed, surprisingly, to an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The menus themselves are static, and the transitions feature various series of still images that provide a choppy sort of animation. The menus follow the cheating theme, based around shots of exams and crib sheets. They're definitely among the better looking sets of menus of recent memory, particularly the sketching of the scenes selection submenus. Cheats has been divided into twenty-four chapter stops.
Conclusion: Andrew Gurland states in "The Real Cheats" that this is a story worth telling. Maybe that's true, but it's not told very well here, unfortunately. Flat and unengaging, I'd wait for Cheats to turn up again on cable before plunking down even a couple of bucks for a rental. Skip It.
Related Links: Apparently New Line hasn't gotten around to updating the title on the official Cheaters website, but a trailer and a link to a mailing list have been provided.