The Perfect Score (2004)
Director: Brian Robbins
Starring: Chris Evans, Bryan Greenberg, Scarlett Johannson
Release date: January 30 (US). Having been exposed to the pitiful Jawbreaker recently I was not in the market for another ‘hilarious’ school comedy. What happens? I get another. May contain detention with ScarJo and spoilers…
Early on, when the soundtrack threw in a couple of comedy sound FX I could feel my hackles starting to rise. But then came Matty’s timely rescue act, bemoaning his expected fate with the family business, Matthews & Sons Septic; “If I don’t get into Maryland my life is shit. Literally. And it’s not even my own shit.” Ah, thought I, this isn’t going to be Jawbreaker. Result. Actually, that doesn’t sound as funny written down… Kyle and Matty are missing out on where they want to be in life. Why? Their SAT (‘Suck Ass Test’) scores are sadly lacking. On the fly, Matty suggests they steal the answers. And so begins a breezy little movie that took me completely by surprise.
Do schools ‘fix’ higher exam results in order to win more funding? This was in the UK news recently – scores go up, schools get more money. It makes cynical sense. Director Robbins poses this controversial theory at the beginning of the flick but he doesn’t want to get heavy on us. No, he holds that thought and instead introduces us to our teen heroes. Kyle (Chris Evans) wants to be an architect and he’s worked out that Cornell has produced a goodly number of draughtsmen so he wants in there. His best friend Matty (Bryan Greenberg) is even less noticeable than Kyle, he just wants to be at the same college as his girlfriend but lacks the brains to follow her. Anna (Erika Christensen) is the clever one but she has a habit of over-analysing questions on exam day and freezes. Francesca’s (Scarlett Johannson) dad owns the building incorporating the Educational Testing Service and the kids need her on board to get them inside to steal the exam papers. Desmond (Darius Miles) is a promising basketball player who has to raise his educational game before he can get into the college of his (mother’s) choice and advance his sporting dreams. Roy (Leonardo Nam) is… a pot head. He overhears the plan and threatens to spill the beans if they don’t let him join the heist.
By the time Francesca name-checks The Breakfast Club during one scene midway through, I was already thinking that The Perfect Score ranked as a John Hughes movie for the Noughties. Their motivations may be slightly sketched and the plan rather too easily executed but naturally this isn’t about stealing exam answers; it’s hardly about anything beyond a bunch of teens forming an unlikely crew and helping each other work out their hang-ups. No, it doesn’t hit the Hughes heights but it does inch ahead of the lesser lights, something like Some Kind Of Wonderful (which is a flip on Pretty In Pink but I get a kick out of it anyway). Plus, The Perfect Score ticks along rapidly with a decent ‘various artists’ soundtrack for 90 pain free minutes. We’re not talking laugh-out-loud here but I chuckled frequently at a script which for the most part is consistently witty and nicely delivered by the cast. Except for…
Roy. Actor Leonardo Nam overplays to the point of irritation; his performance tries the patience. For every smile he raises there are three tumbleweeds blowing across the screen. Yet Robbins persists; he clearly believes Roy is his ace in the hole resulting in one of the most incongruous and unfunny scenes I’ve ever witnessed with Roy caught snooping around a female executive’s office by the lady in question (Vanessa Angel) while casing the ETS building. What follows is a dreadful compilation of facial mugging and innuendo as Roy, posing as a post room employee sets about smirking his way out of trouble. Worse still, for no reason I can think of, Angel’s character is required to play up the situation, perching on the edge of a desk with her feet up on a chair to give Roy a view of leggy stocking. Then she seems affronted when he helps himself to a closer than necessary look!
“I’m from the mail room.”
“Do you have something for me?”
“Well, could you give it to me?”
“Yes I can…” (eyebrow waggling… deliberately drops mail on floor…) “Oops, let me get that for you… Anything else I can do for you while I’m down here?” (more eyebrow waggling)
And there’s no punchline. When they break into the ETS offices for real you might expect Angel to be unexpectedly working late and she maybe tries to seduce Roy. Or at the end, instead of Roy sploshing around a swimming pool with videogame groupies, why not reprise a now doting Angel, just to deliver at least half a joke. Bad, bad writing and out of step with the rest of the script. But there is a P.S. to this scene (see trailer)…
It’s a good idea having Roy as the narrator of the film, rather than the ‘hero’ (Kyle). He is after all the odd one out, doesn’t need to cheat because he’s clever enough already so it makes sense that he should be the storyteller. If you’re injured by a movie encouraging kids to cheat at exams (like Ferris Bueller encouraged kids to have a day off school), don’t worry, The Perfect Score doesn’t; it’s a typical corn-laden message about not needing to cheat, to simply be who you’re gonna be. You don’t need a short cut to achieve your aims, take the scenic route and learn stuff along the way, kids. Not that they learn all that much about themselves here. Desmond, through Roy, learns to communicate better with his mother. Des’s mum (Tyra Ferrell) shows up at Roy’s gaff to sort him out in return (there’s a poignant reason he is like he is but it’s not sledge hammered). Anna learns to stand up to her parents, mother in particular. A simple brotherly chat wakes Kyle up. Francesca forces Matty to face up to the truth about his girlfriend. There be nothing weighty in here.
There’s a fair amount to enjoy; I did like their first full get together to thrash out Kyle’s plan, kyboshed by his brother, Larry (Matthew Lillard) who on a whim has decided to throw a party in the midst of their secret meet. Apart from the chaos and the petty personal disputes between characters having nothing in common, a few of them lapse into daydream fantasy, how they imagine the scam might play out. Included in this sequence is a neat nod to The Matrix (in a separate scene we see Roy watching Heat and taking notes). Once inside the ETS building and in order not to be recognised if the security camera spots them, rather than pick a balaclava or a scarf to wrap around their faces, Kyle, Matty and Francesca choose wrinkly old man mask, scuba goggles and a decapitated torso. Well it tickled me anyway. And then there’s Kyle and Matty enjoying the blinding good fortune of being handed the SAT answers while scoping out ETS on the first sortie, immediately going off to make a copy… only to find the copier is actually a shredder. Oops.
The performances are engaging, if unexceptional. Stand out is the delightful Scarlett Johansson, introduced to us via her cherry-patterned knickers. Thanks, Brian! She hadn’t done many films at this point in her career but it’s clear her screen star is on the rise. Love it when she aims a “P.I.E.C.E… you…” at the latest floozy her dad has brought home. I should also mention Lillard who drops in to own Evans in a couple of scenes. Like Nam, he OTT’s it, but because his scenes are few and brief – and one is semi-serious – Lillard doesn’t outstay his welcome. Wish he was in it more. Overall, The Perfect Score is hardly worth discussing and is largely uneventful, featuring a paper-thin storyline and characters you’ve seen before. I think what appealed to me is Robbins doesn’t rely on the vulgar, overtly smutty nature of previous teen movies. Except for Roy, who views every woman he meets as a sex object – so Robbins has covered that base as much as he feels is necessary. And that’s probably why it wasn’t a hit, because viewers were looking for American Pie. It was nice to see a different focus in one of these things.
Dunno what else to say. I can’t really explain my positive reaction to this. Maybe it’s just relief at not being subjected to another Jawbreaker; maybe it was the presence of Ms. Johansson. Or hey, maybe it’s actually a good movie!
Note: I’ve chosen this particular trailer because it features alternate takes, including that toe-curlingly awful office scene. I’m now wondering if the US cut differs from the UK version or if it’s an early trailer before the movie went to final edit. Anyone know?
I shall give it 2.5 Sodomised In Yer Own Back Yards out of 5.
ThereWolf, July 2012