Sony // 2008 // 93 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // October 6th, 2009
"The name's Bobby Funke. I write for the paper."
The 2008 film Assassination of a High School President screened at Sundance and South by Southwest but did not receive a theatrical release. From what I've been able to glean from the Web, this film is going straight to DVD because the releasing arm of Yari Film Group, Assassination's distributor, went bankrupt in 2008. Although Assassination isn't a masterpiece by any means, it didn't really deserve this fate.
Unpopular sophomore Bobby Funke (Reece Thompson, Rocket Science) is on the hunt for a student newspaper scoop that will grant him admittance to a prestigious summer journalism program. When he turns a puff piece on school president Paul Moore (Patrick Taylor) into a scathing investigative story accusing Paul of stealing SATs, Bobby thinks his ticket to success has been punched. Suddenly, he's popular, drawing the eye of Paul's newly minted ex, Francesca Franchini (Mischa Barton, Virgin Territory), along with the approval of the school's no-nonsense principal (Bruce Willis, 16 Blocks). But when Bobby uncovers evidence that Paul was the victim of a frame job, he determines to find the truth behind the missing SATs -- a decision that could have consequences beyond in-school suspension.
When I first read about Assassination of a High School President, which purported to place film noir tropes in a high school setting, I immediately thought of Rian Johnson's 2005 film Brick. But whereas Brick is a moody, murky affair with occasional splashes of humor, Assassination of a High School President takes a more overtly comic approach to its genre stew -- with mixed results.
Assassination of a High School President is not without its charms. The voiceover narration delivered by Bobby is frequently amusing ("Their alibis were like Dutch ovens. Gamey, but airtight"), and so is writers Tim Calpin and Kevin Jakubowski's depiction of in-school suspension as a prison cell, complete with a "yard" for students to take their allotted exercise. Even little things, like how Bobby chews gum the way Bogie smoked cigarettes, and an omniscient grad student taunting Bobby about the inaccuracies in his article, manage to elicit a smile. I also enjoyed the film's references to Chinatown, as well as the bizarre gaggle of misfit students that Bobby spends time with throughout the movie.
Unfortunately, as funny as Assassination of a High School President can sometimes be, the film has a lot of problems. Once Bobby's article about Paul is published, it doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out the final "twist," even if the larger plot at work is still unclear for a while. Even the elaborate conspiracy that Bobby unravels comes off as somewhat disappointing.
In addition, although the voiceover and dialogue can be pretty funny, the same can't be said for a lot of the characters in the film. Most of the adult characters are annoying, juvenile caricatures, like the lispy Spanish teacher (Josh Pais) and ditzy school nurse (Cold Case's Kathryn Morris). Michael Rapaport turns up for a couple scenes as a lunkhead basketball coach and then completely vanishes from the film.
Then there's Bruce Willis' Principal Kirkpatrick. By far the biggest name in the film, Willis is saddled with a character that is completely ridiculous -- only not in a fun way. With every scene featuring Kirkpatrick, you can see how hard the writers and Willis are trying to make the character funny. Sometimes, it works (a sequence where Kirkpatrick holds a pep rally is appropriately daffy, and Willis does a terrific ad lib to a female student near the beginning of the film), but more often than not, it doesn't.
In the lead role, Thompson does what the role requires, but Bobby Funke is not a particularly memorable protagonist; the mixing of genres and over-the-top supporting players ultimately overwhelms the character. As Bobby's girlfriend, Mischa Barton gives an ambiguous, almost vacant performance that would have been disastrous in most other contexts but for this film actually works.
Sony's DVD of Assassination of a High School President is largely satisfactory from a technical standpoint. The image is soft and grainy at times, but it's nothing major, and the Dolby 5.1 track nicely balances the film's dialogue, effects and eclectic soundtrack.
For extras, there is a feature commentary with director Brett Simon and writers Tim Calpin and Kevin Jakubowski. The trio talks constantly, doling out plenty of interesting tidbits about the evolution of the screenplay, working with the actors and getting various difficult shots. At times, the cross talk among the three makes it difficult to tell what they're talking about, but overall, this is a pretty informative and enjoyable commentary. The three also provide optional commentary for two alternate opening sequences, a collection of extended and alternated scenes and some deleted scenes as well. (For some scenes, no commentary is offered.) Running over 40 minutes total, these clips are interesting enough, but since most of these were wisely left out of the movie, you'll probably only watch them once.
I love film noir. I don't love high school movies. I didn't love Assassination of a High School President. I'm all for genre cross-pollination, but in the case of Assassination of a High School President, the result is more miss than hit.
Guilty of assassinating a strong premise.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Alternate Opening
* Alternate/Extended/Deleted Scenes