April 24, 2008

Underrated MOTM: High School High (1996)

The Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) for April is an old favorite of mine, even though it's probably the most idiotic movie I'll ever praise on Getafilm. I won't defend High School High as a classic by any stretch, but I'll try to provide some evidence as to why it deserves better than a 7% on Rotten Tomatoes (even if that's only from eight reviews). And I promise, it's a total coincidence that just a few months ago I championed Lean on Me as an Underrated MOTM on these pages.

Let's start with the vitals. Released in the fall of 2006, High School High was directed by Hart Bochman (PCU) and starred Jon Lovitz (recently in Southland Tales), Tia Carrere (still around) and Mekhi Phifer (now a regular on "ER"), but the key element to the team was writer David Zucker, who had by that time already cracked you up with his writing in Airplane!, Top Secret!, and the Naked Gun trilogy. By the mid-90's, the "good teacher in the hood" movie was ripe for a spoof, and Zucker had rich source material: Lean on Me, The Substitute, Stand and Deliver, and Dangerous Minds, to name a few. High School High threaded bits from each into its formulaic plot: schlub teacher innocently lands in tough school, befriends attractive colleague, wins over students, inspires them to pass state-administered exams, defies evil principal, and so on. Roger Ebert observed that it "makes the crucial error of taking its story seriously and angling for a happy ending," but I either didn't notice or didn't care. There wasn't a real attempt at making it a dramatic movie, but Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times criticized the same aspect of the direction.

How Hart Bochman became attached to this is a mystery to me, but it's interesting to note that Trey Parker was reportedly offered the chance to direct before him. He turned it down, but ended up starring in BASEketball two years later, which was written and directed by...David Zucker. I also don't know how the casting happened for High School High, but Jon Lovitz turned out to be a great fit. He was just coming out of his glory years (if he really had any?) from "Saturday Night Live" and "The Critic," and he had the perfect, nasally voice for a nerdy teacher. Tia Carrere was the exotic fantasy of Wayne's World fans and had recently been the evil seductress in True Lies (one of the last great action movies). Mekhi Phifer was still a relative unknown with only two film credits to his name, though one of them was his debut in Spike Lee's Clockers. Aside from Louise Fletcher (yep, Nursed Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), the rest of the cast were and still are mostly unknown, though it looks like several are earning a living with television roles.

Yes, the movie is stupid, but it's hard to defend the majority of mainstream comedy as "smart." High School High existed in an odd window in Hollywood - after the classic spoofs in the style of Mel Brooks, but before the cheap referencing and bodily fluid showcasing in spoofs like Scary Movie and its now omnipresent spawn. In its own unique way, High School High delivered sharp satire, dry dialogue, and decent acting (even if that "acting" was just delivering deadpan lines). Said New York Times critic Lawrence Van Gelder: "There's not much sense to the plot. But the film makers' blunderbuss approach to humor, with visual and verbal jokes coming in profusion and scattering high and low, guarantees that just about every funnybone is bound to be hit, some more than once."

How many times your funnybone is hit will depend on your taste and your mood, but chances are good that you'll chuckle a few times. You can't place it on a list with Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery or others that I previously mentioned, but I find the Zucker influence in High School High a lot funnier than most of the classically-defined spoofs that are being churned out these days.

I really can't believe I just attempted a defense of this movie.

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