One of the many comedies debuting at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Assassination of a High School President is a school-set spoof of film noir, with school paper journalist Bobby Funke (Reece Thompson) going from outcast to in-crowd when he dopes out who's been lifting SAT papers from the administration's office. Funke hits the means, motive and opportunity triple play and pins the thefts on student council president and basketball star Paul Moore (Patrick Taylor); his article earns him a coveted internship with Northwestern's journalism program and the affections of Moore's ex, Francesca (Mischa Barton). It's all looking good. Until it isn't. Funke learns new facts that make his sure-thing story look shaky; Northwestern is calling to fact-check the story, and if they find holes, his internship's over before its begun. But Funke's ready to walk the mean halls of St. Donovan's and scour the Jersey suburbs to get the story right. ...
Many critics and observers have already pigeonholed Assassination of a High School President as"Brick played for laughs." And yeah, that's a fairly simplistic assessment; then again, Assassination of a High School President's a fairly simplistic film. Written by ex-South Park production assistants Tim Calpin and Kevin Jakubowski (and between this film and Hamlet 2, it's interesting how the road to Park City, Utah seems to have had an on-ramp in South Park, Colorado this year), Assassination never quite clicks as a total experience. Yes, it's amusing when Thompson, in his self-celebrating inner monologue, says he'll be on the case " ... like pink rubber bands on your sister's braces." And director Brett Simon finds lively, well-shot moments of visual excitement in the clichés of high school life: detention is shot like the big house, a party sequence moves and grooves with giddy chaos. But Assassination has a meandering plot line that dithers when it should drive forward, and lingers at times it should leap ahead. As Funke works leads, we get scenes that expand the running time instead of advance the plot. And yes, holding this film's central pitch up to the life-and-death stakes of Brick -- one of the best films I've ever seen in seven years of attending Sundance -- is going to make the funny-and-goofy stakes of Assassination seem slighter in comparison.
I did laugh occasionally during Assasination, though, and more than I did watching Hamlet 2; St. Donovan's principal, Mr. Kirkpatrick, is played by Bruce Willis as a shaven-headed, glass-eyed bullet of a man, a Desert Storm vet who keeps a picture of Eisenhower in his office. And Thompson, who made the 2007 Sundance offering Rocket Science a true pleasure, has wicked comedic timing veiled behind an everydork's face and voice. "Frederich Nietzsche said 'Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger.' But five bucks says Frederich Nietzsche never got a swirlie." It's a nice line when you read it -- but Thompson's delivery raises the comedy level substantially. And as the good girl who may be the femme fatale (or vice-versa), Barton's good but not great; her hot-button celebrity (and tastefully dorsal nude scene) may help the film's buzz level, but she doesn't quite have the level of pure acting talent that could have bolstered the thinly-written role.
And a certain degree of lack of focus also hurts Assassination of a High School President's comedy. Caplan and Jakubowski veer between highbrow jokes like a Taxi Driver sight gag as funny as it is fast and then stoop to the lower realms of potty humor; the audience and the film both get whiplash. If Assassination had stayed closer to the joke it's ostensibly selling itself with, it might have worked better as a film; the mock-noir retro dialogue and feel in some scenes makes an uneasy mix with the more modern romance and gutter comedy. Most damningly, Assassination feels as if every character isn't in on the joke -- while Thompson and Melonie Diaz (playing the editor of the school paper) are pretty much wholly invested in the film's conceit, other characters move in and out of it pretty much at random, and every time that happens it punctures the comedic tension in the idea. Assassination of a High School President may promise murder in the title, but the actual film's undone by suicidal errors in storytelling judgment that undercut the laughs and diffuse the film's focus.