Note taking is for losers!
Playing like a classic caper movie set in a posh private school, Cheats is an almost true-to-life account of the high school hijinks of writer/director Andrew Gurland (Frat House) and his clandestine cronies.
Facts of the Case
Handsome (Trevor Fehrman), Sammy (Elden Henson, Dumb and Dumberer), Victor (Matthew Lawrence, Boy Meets World), and Applebee (Martin Starr) are the guys who know how to work all the angles in their high school. Handsome is the ringleader, part Ferris Bueller and part Don Corleone. He and Sammy have been cheating their whole academic careers, on everything from second grade spelling bees to senior chemistry tests. Victor serves as a lookout and essential participant in their scams. Applebee, the nerd of the group, is the cribmaster, valued for his amazing skill at writing "crazy small." Among the four of them they have cheated, scammed, and stolen their way to legendary status among their peers. Whenever a jock needs to protect his eligibility, or a test is unpassable, everyone knows to come to Handsome and his friends for "special help."
As happens so often with everyone from the Gotti family to the Beatles, success eventually takes its toll on this close-knit group of friends. Tensions between Applebee and Victor erupt in open hostility. Sammy starts dating a smart girl and decides to go legit; he even becomes the founding member of a student organization, a Student Court intended to handle various disciplinary issues. Handsome leaves his friends out to dry after one of their schemes goes sour. The four friends reunite for one last heist late in their senior year, which proves to be their undoing and the end not only of their successful partnership but of their friendship.
Cheats is an enjoyable film, equal parts Mission: Impossible, The Breakfast Club, and James Bond. It would be as unbelievable as Ferris Bueller's Day Off if it weren't based on actual events in the life of Gurland and his buddies. Even so, it does push the boundaries of credibility once in a while, but it's such a fun ride that viewers will hardly notice.
On the other hand, there's not a lot of substance here. There are only two particularly noteworthy performances in the film. The first comes from Trevor Herman (Now You Know) as Handsome, the rakishly rebellious ringleader. He spends so much time in the principal's office that he even has a Bond/Moneypenny relationship with her secretary. The big surprise is sweet, lovable Mary Tyler Moore as the rigid martinet Mrs. Stark. Moore plays the despotic principal with gleefully twisted flair, certainly a departure from the TV Land fare that made her famous.
The main special feature on this DVD is a documentary reuniting Gurland with his crew of cheats from the old days. It is amazing how much in this movie actually happened; there were even real-life events that had to be cut after audiences found them too unbelievable. This featurette runs for almost 18 minutes and is a fascinating look at the real people behind the characters; on the other hand, it also seems a little pathetic and a bit creepy at times that Gurland is still this obsessed with events that happened in high school over ten years ago. (Of course, I shouldn't be too hard on him; I'm about Gurland's age and I still think about Name Withheld from Spanish class, but she was hot…well, uh, nevermind.) In addition to these revelations about Gurland's glory days, there is a selection of deleted/alternate scenes and a few bonus trailers. For those with DVD-ROM capability there is also the fabled InterActual player which will take you to New Line's website.
As usual, New Line has taken a level of care that most studios would scoff at with the technical presentation of this small, relatively unknown film. It looks mostly great. Colors are right on the money, the image is sharp and clear with little trace of digital foul-ups, and there is only a slight amount of haloing or edge enhancement evident. Audio is available in a surprising variety of flavors; I mostly stuck with the flagship DTS track, which did not disappoint. It's not going to show off your sound system, and like most indie films the soundtrack songs are way overmixed, but I doubt that's New Line's fault.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Cheats falls apart at the end when an informant with no obvious interest in informing rats out the group. Also, the scenes where Handsome and the boys work to intimidate witnesses from testifying against them at the student court comes across as hammy, not funny, and just a little too mean spirited. Then, to wrap it all up, there is a collection of snapshots at the end of the film, along with text explanations of what happened to each of the characters. Here's a tip for all you budding filmmakers out there: when you run out of stuff that can actually be shown on camera, the movie is over. The only exception to this rule is Animal House.
Speaking of mean spirited, there is also an Asian janitor in this film who speaks broken English, falls for the boys' scams, and generally winds up being the most blatantly offensive Asian stereotype since Long Duk Dong. Great accomplishment there, Gurland.
It's fun, it's silly, it won't change your life, but it is a pleasant diversion. Cheats will appeal to everyone, whether student or working class, who wishes that just once they could be the rebel, the scammer, the guy who can work all the angles, pull all the strings, and get stuff to come out his way. I guess that's probably all of us.
Not guilty! Film and studio are both free to go.
We stand adjourned.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Original Documentary "The Real Cheats"
Review content copyright © 2003 Erick Harper; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.