Film With Honors
directed by Alek Keshishian '86
written by William Mastrosimone
starring Joe Pesci, Brendan Fraser,
Patrick Dempsey and Moira Kelly
"WITH HONORS" is a very bad movie. But it warms the cockles of the heart, and to paraphrase Woody Allen, there's nothing like hot cockles.
Full of goofy laughter, angst and tears, Alek Keshishian's film about four Harvard students and the spunkiest bum you ever did see is nothing less than a "Love Story" for out time. A simple coming of age story that takes into account today's troubled economic climate, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, and an impersonal health-care system run amok.
Monty Kessler (Brendan Fraser) is a hyper-motivated government major who already had ten chapters of his senior thesis--on how the federal government sucks--by December. (He mentions that the thesis is 88 pages, which means the chapters average about nine pages in length--what kind of thesis is that? Never mind, though--he loses it.) The silly boy's hard drive crashes, and he does not have a backup on floppy. Rushing through the Yard to Kinko's to xerox his one printed version of the essay, he trips in the snow, and his thesis falls through a grate into the bowels of Widener Library.
Monty sneaks into Widener, a strange and fabulous Widener (okay, so it's not really Widener: Harvard wouldn't allow Alek to film there). He goes down into a boiler room, a strange and fabulous boiler room--a scary boiler room not unlike an old steel mill--and encounters among the boilers Simon Wilder (Joe Pesci), a homeless man living there. Simon has Monty's thesis but won't give it back. Monty gets Simon evicted, but Simon hides the thesis. He makes a deal with Monty to give him a page a day for food and housing.
The remarkable thing is that Simon, although a bum, is one hell of a guy. One hell of a guy. He is full of jokes; when a stuffy Disability administrator asks, "What state were you born in?" Simon answers, "Infancy." He reads Zola. He cooks. He fixes cars. He defends the Constitution brilliantly in a classroom showdown with Money's thesis advisor, that sneering elitist bastard Professor Pitkannan (played with relish by Gore Vidal) who finds the document vulgar and crude.
Pretty soon, Simon becomes the father Monty never had. Monty's roommates--Courtney (Moira Kelly), Everett (Patrick Dempsey) and Jeff (Josh Hamilton)--also get to like him; he even moves in with them. After Simon makes wise remarks, Monty and Courtney realize that they like each other, and they even have sex. Simon's so nice; it's really too bad he is doomed! Doomed!
The bottom line is, Harvard may be impressive and all, but the real lessons are learned outside of the classroom--mostly from homeless guys. So is "With Honors" Alek Keshishian's grand reflection on the uselessness of his Harvard education? Nah, he's just playing the Hollywood game, rising in the ranks by making this ridiculous, formulaic, manipulative flick.
That said, the awful story, nicely paced and well acted, meets its low aims. Keshishian negotiates his material skillfully in a clean break from "Truth or Dare." No one fellates anything in "With Honors," and that's okay. Now we know he is versatile enough to make feel-good movies.
For Harvard audiences, his seamless juxtapositions of the random places on campus where he was allowed to shoot may feel disorienting, but in a fun way. The cinematography of Sven Nykvist (of Ingmar Bergman fame) is competent, but it has none of the passion of his most recent work, the lyrical "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" and the truly horrible (but well-filmed) "Sleepless in Seattle."
The most endearing aspect of the movie is the acting. Joe Pesci is genuinely likeable in the lead, although it is hard to get past the fact that Simon is a shameless caricature. He performs especially well in the scene when Simon, wheezing and on his knees, interrupts Monty and Courtney's postcoital petting. He does not perform as well when he rubs his hands and says, "Boy oh boy oh boy," something he does with unsettling frequency.
Brendan Fraser is wooden as Monty, but Monty is a wooden character--so in a way, this seems appropriate. While Josh Hamilton goes a little overboard as the peevish pre-med, the actors who play the other roommates give strong supporting performances. Moira Kelly is a friendly, energetic Courtney, one of the boys...yet very much a woman. And Patrick Dempsey, as Everett the WHRB deejay, is joyously lusty. Dempsey has played a debauched Harvard man before--namely, Jack Kennedy in the "Reckless Youth" miniseries. This reviewer can only hope Dempsey will play a debauched Harvard man again.
"With Honors," despite its redeeming qualities, is neither truthful nor daring. Its treatment of homelessness couldn't be triter, and as in most movies about "our generation," the characters bear little resemblance to today's college students. Like Monty's thesis, "With Honors" is too fundamentally flawed to live up to its name.