A film that can only really be described as “Brick, but worse,” Assassination of a High School President is a neo-noir set in an American high school, involving a wannabe journalist attempting to uncover a conspiracy involving stolen SATs. I really have no idea why it’s called “Assassination of a High School President,” as such a thing doesn’t occur in the film, but I suppose that sells more titles for its bankrupt distributor than “Brick, but worse,” especially because Brick, while pretty great, is still somewhat unknown.
The film stars Reece Thompson as Bobby Funke, the aforementioned wannabe journalist. He is a writer, but he’s never finished an article for the school newspaper. This changes when he finds out that the student body president steals the SATs. Or, at least, he had the potential to do so, and the tests were in his locker, so make all the assumptions you want. As it turns out, there’s more to it than that, so Funke (pronounced improperly by everyone) digs deeper and winds up finding out far more than anyone would expect, except the audience, who are hopefully familiar with film noir.
If you’re not, and are hoping for “baby’s first film noir,” you’ll probably want to look elsewhere. This isn’t so much an introduction to the genre as it is an attempt at homage. Translating all of the genre clichés to a high school environment is something that Brick did well, and it works reasonably well here, too. The problems Assassination of a High School President faces is that its story is less interesting and its characters are far shallower.
The plot isn’t terrible, but it’s predictable when it really needs to be surprising. You live for the reveals, for the twists, and for the uncovering of the myths and rumors, for which a high school is a perfect setting. When its main character, who is supposed to be quite intelligent and savvy, can’t figure out what you already have, it takes credibility away from the film. It also makes for something of a boring watch and a predictable film.
There’s some satire of the high school environment thrown in, as well as the idea that high school and its populace can be just as awful as the streets of most noir films. But then director Brett Simon throws in stupid teen comedy moments which serve to undermine any attempt at actual commentary or insight. The tone is upset and so is the movie. What’s the school principal, Kirkpatrick (Bruce Willis), even doing for most of the film? Plotting his next stupid moment? Because that’s what it seems like. He shows up as comic relief, and while the individual scenes work, they are largely unmotivated and ruin the tone.
Why is it that the lead character is a socially inept outsider? Is this the type of person who grows up and becomes something of a private detective? Or is it because we need that character to fall for the out-of-his-league Francesca (Mischa Barton) and finally do the things the cool characters are doing, like going to parties? It’s not even like his smarts are put to the test, like I mentioned above; it’s that the filmmakers think that artificial growth amounts to something.
In fact, most of the characters are incredibly shallow or inconsistent, which is one of the film’s main problems. There’s not a whole lot of reason for Funke to do the things he does in the film, and even less character to fall back on when that motivation is questioned. Francesca should be a femme fatale equivalent, and at times seems to almost do that, but eventually does nothing worthwhile except be involved in a late-game reveal that (1) the film hides and (2) you’ll figure out anyway.
The supporting cast is worse. They all do things for reasons that either don’t exist or don’t matter, and some of it appears to exist for the sole purpose of having a plot for the movie. It’s as if they know they’re in a movie, and need to act a certain way for that reason. It’s unnatural and makes the whole experience feel fake. And, no, I don’t think that’s an intentional commentary on high school by the filmmakers; it’s just poor filmmaking.
The film isn’t without its moments. While Willis’ character shouldn’t really be in the film, at least not as he is presented, he’s consistently funny. One scene has a driving exam go horribly and hilariously wrong, or right, depending on your viewpoint. And … actually, that’s about it. Willis and one driving scene make up the film’s highlights. The rest is mostly uninteresting or something you have to trudge through. Worst of all is that it’s largely boring. There’s little here you need to see or haven’t seen before.
Assassination of a High School President wants to be a fusion of film noir and teen comedy, and it falls short in both regards. Its plot is easy to figure out, and yet needlessly convoluted, its characters take away the film’s credibility, and the comedy undermines the tone that is so crucial to film noir. None of the actors, save for Bruce Willis, turn in a performance that’s good or memorable, and in Willis’ case, his character should have been re-written or excised, as he helps to further ruin the film, despite being one of the best things about it. Makes sense of that.