Why Shoot the Teacher? Directed by Silvio Narizzano At the Orson Welles
HIGH SCHOOL used to mean Archie and Betty and Veronica and Jughead. Remember tenth grade: hanging out in the boys' room, wondering which girls wore bras and which guys shaved? Discovering which novels were literature and which smut? Trying to keep a diary and discovering that nothing about your life was really worth writing about, even after all those steamy Friday nights in the gym? Working your way past crushes and puppy love and on to the real thing? Remember how you used to love asking rhetorical questions and speaking in cliches? Didn'tcha?
Before the hordes jump on My Bodyguard as the Breaking Away of this summer, a word of caution: None of the adolescent boys who star in My Bodyguard fall in love. They don't even become infatuated. Girls are brace-faced idiots who fill in the empty classrooms of the John Fleer School in Chicago, Ill. That makes this heart-warming tale of pubescent-bonding much simpler, of course, since females don't get in the way. Their absence casts a strange aura over this film, where the only libidinous urges come from Ruth Gordon, playing a grandmother with lust in her heart. Not that sex should be everything. But in tenth grade, sex is everything.
Perhaps it's this pallid, celibate quality that makes My Bodyguard so appealing. Without redeeming prurient interest, the film draws attention to its charming heroes and revels in a puerile macho sensibility. Lacking Breaking Away's overwhelming charm, or Fame's exuberance, it's still a lot of fun.
Fifteen-year-old Clifford Peache (Chris Makepeace) switches schools and instantly alienates the bullies in his new class. They threaten to mangle him unless he forks over his lunch money. So Cliff finds a bodyguard, hulking Ricky Linderman (Adam Baldwin) who, the rumor goes, has killed a kid, raped a teacher, and shot a cop. Cliff eventually wins over the silent, secretive Ricky, and the two score a rousing--and hilarious--final victory over the bullies who have tormented them since day one.
Tony Bill matches the simplicity of the story, and the authenticity of Alan Ormsby's screenplay, with smooth and pleasingly detailed direction. The editing is too neat at times, and the tone not quite boyish enough, but Bill succeeds at sneaking in a good laugh whenever his film veers toward the saccharine or ridiculous.
While all the characters in Ormsby's script are stereotypes, he has endowed each of them with unusual depth. Only Makepeace's Clifford is awkward at times. He must be the wimp and the hero at once, a difficult role for any actor, and a task just beyond Makepeace's grasp. But Baldwin and Matt Dillon, as big bully Melvin Moody, are superb in roles no less difficult. As for the adults, Martin Mull and John Houseman appear fleetingly, and Ruth Gordon sticks to her tried-and-true role as a sex-hungry old bat.
GORDON'S OLD PARTNER, Bud Cort, of Harold and Maude fame, stars as Max Brown in a Canadian production of Max Braithwaite's novel Why Shoot the Teacher? The film reportedly set all kinds of box-office records in Canada--it's set in Saskatchewan and was filmed in Alberta--and it's easy to see why. Like My Bodyguard, it emphasizes real people in real situations--a young schoolteacher in a barren Canadian farmers' town.
But what exactly are real people? Do they eat meatloaf and shop at K-Mart or wear moth-eaten sweaters and hum Haydn in the shower? And what is a real situation? A Saskatchewan classroom during the Depression can appear as real as a Chicago classroom today and a Canadian bully can be just as real as an American hood. So what gives both these films the accessible quality of coffee-table books, full of colorful portraits, sensible prose and a handful of good chuckles?
Silvio Narizzano's portrait of Max's attempts to learn them scruffy varmints their educational rudiments is adequate. He might have used color to better effect in portraying the relentless winter nights that settle over the grain fields; or further developed his political commentary, which stops at simplistic socialism.
And Cort's Max, while as wide-eyed and clumsy as Buster Keaton, fails to add the vibrant punch that his mordant Harold could not escape. Nor does love interest Samantha Eggar provide anything more than good, solid acting.
But the sum of these parts--Narizzano's smooth camerawork, Cort's lurching educator, Eggar's rough-hewn farmer's wife, and the dozen kids who make up Max Brown's class--is a satisfying whole, not unlike My Brilliant Career. The settings are different, of course, and the heroine in search of a career is now a hero, but the tone of each film is the same: gritty, vivacious, and indomitable.
To say these films have a "real" quality is to say we are gritty, vivacious and indomitable. In a way, we are; but even more, we respect these attributes wherever we see them. Clifford Peache and Max Brown are no more real than girls who race to lose their virginity (Little Darlings) or boys who love to destroy (The Warriors). But they embody a type of reality to which most of us aspire, which makes them both--even without Archie and Betty--wonderful films about growing up.