[7 October 2009]
Associate Features Editor
Following its sundry reception at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Assassination of a High School President ran into a few road blocks on its way to wide theatrical distribution. One of its production companies, the Yari Film Group, faced a serious financial crisis. Its (supposed) lead actress, Mischa Barton (The O.C.) went through a professional and personal free fall that culminated in her institutionalization.
The film’s supporters finally started an internet-based campaign to save the picture by requesting curious moviegoers become fans of the feature on Facebook, hoping enough fans would join to justify its prompt release. Well, none of it worked. The direct-to-DVD label was slapped on, and here it is in all its extensively edited, toothless obscurity.
Assassination of a High School President, alas, is not one of those rare film gems that eluded the usual distribution pattern, but still proved worth a glance in the privacy of a home theater environment. The film tells the tale of Bobby Funke (played haphazardly by Reece Thompson), a high school reporter looking for a big story when, what do you know, one just happens to fall in his lap. The SATs have been stolen and no one knows who could’ve pulled off such a heinous feat.
The principal (Bruce Willis) is a fool. The teachers don’t care. And the rest of the student body lacks the brains and intuition of a young Woodward or Bernstein (as Funke repeatedly references for inspiration). It’s up to Funke to solve the mystery, get the girl, and save the day.
If the overt, slightly obnoxious narration and Funke’s oversized trench coat somehow fail to tip off the viewer to the film’s desire to be a modern-day noir, this plot drills the idea home. Sure, it can work with the right cast, costumes, and art direction, but Assassination of a High School President has none of these. The story structure is simply too straightforward.
Funke is the only person investigating what would surely be a matter for the authorities in any actual high school, and the writer provides him with liberties unavailable to any sophomore. Plausibility (or lack of) aside, the production severely lags thanks to a consistent lack of interesting secondary characters.
Barton, as the president’s ex-girlfriend, is remarkably bland for a woman whose personal life is unabashedly vibrant. She stares blankly while muttering her lines and moving with the grace of a jerky marionette. Also, despite receiving top-billing, she only appears briefly and her character is never fully justified. Though she does manage to stand out amongst the rest of the drones, she does so for all the wrong reasons.
Perhaps her scenes, as well as a few others, should have somehow been rewritten in order to provide more screen time to the film’s saving grace. Bruce Willis, in what could have been a throwaway role, flexes his comedic muscles as a silly, tough-guy wannabe who just happens to be the school principal. In only a few choice scenes, Willis manages to fill the massive fun void left by his by-the-book costars. He somehow sticks to the curricula set forth by his unseen administrators while simultaneously acting remarkably un-PC. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell whether Willis is really bringing his A-game or he just looks super shiny next to the dull duds surrounding him.
Willis does, however, appear in more scenes than necessary perhaps because editors William M. Anderson and Thomas J. Nordberg saw how weak their film was without him. Editors will always take the extra time given them, and I’m guessing they went through a few dozen cuts before settling on the edition set forth in this disc. How that affected the film’s story structure we may never know, but I doubt it hurt what was undoubtedly a weak first edition.
The writers, Tim Calpin and Kevin Jakubowski, do keep a few details hidden until the film’s less than shocking final act, but the main thrust was foretold many years, even decades prior by much, much better movies. Even more recent attempts at modern noir such as Brick or The Singing Detective have come much closer to the true intention of their predecessors. Though few feature black and white visuals, only the best truly delve into some dark places with serious themes and important messages. Assassination of a High School President just uses the surface-level aspects of the genre in a film taking itself so lightly that nothing matters in the end.
The extras are equally uninspired, but do shed some light on the troubled post-production with its inclusion of an alternate opening and multiple extended takes. Unfortunately, none of the content is all that expository or compelling. Instead, the extras exist only as remnants of a film plagued with problems.