Sunday, October 25, 2009

Assassination of a High School President

Brett Simon's Assassination of a High School President wants to be many things -- a straight film noir, a tongue-in-cheek spoof of same, a commentary on the seedy underworld of youth and an examination of high school politics. Unfortunately for Simon and writers Tim Calpin and Kevin Jakubowski, the television program Veronica Mars already did all of this with infinitely more finesse, charm and wit. Indeed, the specter of Mars is all over this picture, from its alternately popular/shunned protagonist to its hip quotation of classic noir tropes and dialogue. Where this film seeks to capture that lightning-in-a-bottle balance of styles and themes of the show's first two seasons, however, it can only shoulder up to Veronica Mars' third season: it rambles, it lacks much bite and you can figure out everything several steps before the main characters.

Reece Thompson plays Bobby Funke (pronounced "funk," though no one says it properly), a wannabe journalist who fancies himself the best writer on his school's paper despite never finishing a single article. He pines for the editor, Clara, though his romantic loyalties apparently extend only so far as the person he believes might go for him. Clara, likely fed up with Bobby staring at her legs all the time, gives him a puff piece to see if he can finally see an article to completion.

Sent to cover the Student Government Association, Bobby finds himself with a real story on his hands when the beloved SGA president Paul Moore, a star athlete who has already mastered the fine art of referring to himself in the third person, is injured at a basketball game. That same night, someone steals the SATs from Principal Kirkpatrick's (Bruce Willis) office. Coincidence? Not on your life, sport. Bobby, constantly professing his love for Woodward and Bernstein, attempts to solve the crime in order to secure a spot in Northwestern University's summer program. He finds circumstantial evidence linking Moore and the theft, and he takes the story to press without definitive proof. Suddenly, he's the most respected and feared kid at St. Donovan's.

Up until this point, Assassination played out like an above-average comic noir, its facile breakdown of high school and too-hip dialogue notwithstanding. Naturally, no mystery is ever solved by the halfway mark, so Bobby discovers that everything might not have been so cut-and-dry as he thought, and he needs to find the whole truth before Northwestern finds out and retracts their invitation. Compounding his need to clear Moore's name is Bobby's new relationship with Paul's ex-, Francesca (Mischa Barton), the most popular and beautiful girl in the school.

Here the various comic exaggerations boil over into outright farce, even as the writers ratchet up the drama, creating an uneasy dichotomy between moods. Some aspects of this magnified comedy greatly amused me: a literal beer garden of kegs outside a frathouse, a Fincher-esque detention hall with flickering lights and inexplicably damp brick walls, a mysterious fact-checker from Northwestern who can magically ring whatever phone Bobby happens to be standing near in order to keep up the pressure on this applicant to prove his story. But nearly all of the actors fumble with the stylized dialogue; hell, most of them couldn't even convince me they were remotely high school age. Worst of all is Barton, though that might be true only because she's given more dialogue than the completely two-dimensional background characters: she makes the increasingly popular choice to play her character without an ounce of emotion. When did actors get together and decide that the best way to play teenagers was lifeless? Maybe I'm just naïve but I don't think we were all on Adderall.

Assassination runs out of steam long before it actually comes to a halt, and to fill the gap it stretches the mystery out beyond the breaking point. Every clue Bobby receives leads in one glaringly obvious direction, but suddenly a heretofore unseen character or motive presents itself to offer a possible outcome. We must also suffer through the school turning once again on Bobby, returning him to his place at the bottom and indeed digging a hole under the ladder to lower him further. Nearly all of the dialogue concerned with Bobby's social status, really, borders on the groanworthy: when a rival writer plants a story that Bobby framed Moore to gain fame, Clara gives the perfunctory "I thought you wanted more than popularity" speech that is wholly without context to any of the film's action. Also, why is it that Bobby's story is (justifiably) torn apart by fact-checkers and other students while Tad's is accepted without a doubt?

The only reason I ended up remotely enjoying myself was the strength of Thompson and Willis' performances. Willis, very much in "Bruce Willis" mode, plays Kirkpatrick as a deranged Desert Storm veteran, a man who cares more about whether Bobby has gum in his mouth than the conspiracy Funke slowly uncovers. It's a cheap strategy, but there's no denying he steals all of his scenes simply by being loud and bizarre. But it's young Thompson who proves most interesting, and he stands to break out with the picture. With an identifiable voice (Wikipedia tells me he did voiceover work as a teen) and as a Veronica Mars substitute he impressively holds his own with a natural screen presence. As much as I wanted the movie to end, I found myself equally wishing I could follow this character a while longer. It's not enough to save the movie, but hey, every little bit helps.

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