It’s probably best if we all can admit that since the success of Rushmore in the late ‘90s, what it means to make — or watch — a supposedly intelligent low-budget comedy has changed, for better or worse. Geeks who can’t articulate their problems with the world and never catch a break, usually a young man who’s endlessly witty and hilariously sarcastic despite his surprisingly uncynical core philosophy, have by now painfully grown up and almost gotten the girl across hundreds and hundreds of screens over and over again. Oddball friends or romantic interests — “charming” enigmas by design — have run amuck.
In the trailer for Alex & Emma (2003), a female lead says, “I don’t like tomato skins.” A baffled Luke Wilson replies, “Who are you?” (If this makes it into the trailer, it’s probably best to try not to imagine what the actual movie contains). While most of us probably thought manufactured quirk couldn’t become anymore obtrusive or obnoxious than that, it continued to proliferate in the seven years since, and shows no signs of dying out.
Wes Anderson surely had no idea what a Pandora’s Box he was opening by making films that somehow still — despite countless attempts since to cash in on his style in not only other movies, but also advertisements, television shows, and even music groups — feel personal and original. Even he, though, has had to run to stop-motion animation to avoid being bogged down by his own preciousness.
In this climate in which every moderately budgeted comedy this side of The Hangover is marketed as an Andersonian ball of charm, it surprises me to no end to have enjoyed Tenure nearly as much as I did. John Frizzell’s score over the opening credits recalls Mark Mothersbaugh’s sound so much that when a campus in the Northeastern United States flashes onto the screen, it’s impossible not to be thinking about Rushmore, even if you ignore the presence of a Wilson brother.
It’s hard to escape those kind of thoughts for very long. In one scene, masked young men use Dignan’s “Ka-Kaw! Ka-Kaw” signal from Bottle Rocket. Here, writer/director Mike Million leaves ripoff territory and approaches something close to allusion or homage, which is just plain weird.
Tenure works, though, because the cast is magnetic enough that the audience can look beyond tonal oddities. Luke Wilson plays Charlie Thurber, an English professor who loves the classroom but is exhausted by the day-to-day researching and writing of academia. He’s found himself at a small, Northeastern school called Grey College, where the dean is a classic bow-tied boob and his supervisor an archetypical stuck-up prude. Still, he loves the kids and they love him.
Funnyman David Koechner is cast as Charlie’s only ally, an anthropologist who’s hung up on proving the existence of the Appalachian Sasquatch (manufactured quirk, anyone?). Charlie has taught at Grey for 12 years, and he’s up for tenure in the spring.
Charlie’s already bounced around a few colleges, and his father, a retired Princeton professor, wonders where his son will get tenure if even Grey College won’t take him into the fold. He’s also single, and he’s lonely. His quest of tenureship and a relationship takes him through a series of wacky little sequences, from borderline creepy phone calls to PBS volunteers to an advisory role in the fledgling erotic poetry club. (It should be noted here that Nathan Pham is absolutely hilarious as erotic poetry club president Stan).
When Elaine Grasso (Gretchen Mol) shows up from an Ivy League school to teach English at Grey College, Charlie feels his shot at tenure is gone. From the moment she appears, it’s clear to any viewer who’s ever seen a movie before that Grasso and Charlie will end up together, but Million works a few decent gags in. The plot, though, doesn’t make this movie special. At one point, the prudish head of the English department (Ellen Tobie), says, “I am not charmed by you, Thurber.”
It’s a good thing we are charmed by him, because Million has more or less bet his whole movie that we would be. In fact, Wilson, Koechner, Pham, and Mol are all extremely likeable and fun to watch, as is Hilary Pingle as a student with a crush on Charlie. The performances are winning enough to wash out the annoying tone and the mediocre story, and Tenure ends up being surprisingly funny, although not surprisingly profound or heartfelt.
The DVD includes three deleted scenes and three minutes of outtakes, most of which feature Koechner cracking up the crew.