“Assassination of a High School President” (2008)
by A.J. Hakari
Smuggling a classic story or genre in a high school setting is a great way to make kids take their cinematic vitamins. Easy A drew from “The Scarlet Letter,” Shakespeare inspired 10 Things I Hate About You, and Brick presented the classroom in a noirish tint. Assassination of a High School President is along the latter’s lines, albeit with a comedic twist that makes its truth-seeking protagonist into a hapless muckracker. It’s a bit of a smarmfest but not annoyingly so, taking itself just seriously enough for you to wonder how the story will end amidst the zingers.
Bobby Funke (Reece Daniel Thompson) has the mouth of Sam Spade and the social stature of Lewis Skolnick. Though he fancies himself a hard-hitting reporter, he’s yet to actually finish a story his high school’s paper is willing to print. Bobby gets one last chance when he’s assigned to write a fluff piece on campus president Paul Moore (Patrick Taylor), whom, after a little digging, he ends up tying to the recent theft of some SAT exams. One expose later, Bobby has won over not just the respect of the student body but the affections of Paul’s uber-popular girlfriend, Francesca (Mischa Barton). But when evidence of Paul’s possible innocence surfaces, Bobby gets his investigation on and races against time to save his reputation, his shot at a journalism internship, and his chances of getting to third base with Francesca.
You might not think of a Catholic school as the ideal locale for a conspiracy-laden comedy, but Assassination makes a pretty good case for itself. What poor, adulation-starved Bobby finds as he picks up the pieces goes beyond cheating on a test, stretching so far as to include a drug ring, bookies, and a student council that seems all too pleased about their leader being taken down. Throughout it all, Bobby is torn between seeing justice served and being seduced by the spoils of overnight popularity, both scenarios that the film convincingly puts forth. The story isn’t a particularly hard nut to crack, though Assassination knows well enough to at least tackle the well-worn material that it gets with its own style. This mostly means a lot of profane, shock value-skewed one-liners, but hey, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t chuckling at a consistent rate.
While Assassination benefits from a script that not only translates detective movie tropes for an academic environment well but also plays them for goofs, the cast really helps sell the premise. In their respective ways, pretty much everyone has the job of putting on a front that’s stripped away bit by bit as the plot thickens. Thompson (last seen cozying up to future ex-Mrs. Hakari Kat Dennings in Daydream Nation) gives us a lead whose increasingly clouded judgment is easy to buy; Bobby wants to get to the bottom of things, but it’s hard with hotties and parties tempting him off the straight and narrow. Barton also puts on a good show as the alpha mean girl, whose exterior hides what’s either the heart of a secret sweetie or a femme fatale in training. But the big surprise here is Bruce Willis, whose deadpan performance as the school principal has no shortage of laughs.
Assassination of a High School President doesn’t pack as much bite as it could’ve (I don’t foresee a Heathers-like following for this), and the abrupt ending misses out on the chance for the film to retire on one last, snark-enhanced note. But it makes clever use of tired thematic territory and has a sense of humor about itself, as opposed to those fleets of wide-eyed teen flicks oblivious to their overly-cliched natures. Assassination is funny stuff, not to mention an effective reminder to never, ever chew gum in Bruce Willis’ presence.