With Honors (1994)

Directed by Alek Keshishian

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In With Honors a young, handsome, cocky Harvard senior, Monty (Brendan Fraser) bonds with an old bum, Simon (Joe Pesci), who has stumbled across the last copy of the thesis Monty needs to graduate with honors.  Recognizing the value of the 83 remaining pages, Simon makes a deal to exchange each page for a favor from the young man who has everything going for him in life and doesn’t realize it.

The idea here is that Monty’s an academic whose book smarts don’t yet translate to the real world.  Simon then will help him wise up to the broader world and point out what really matters in life.  Hint, it’s not Monty’s senior thesis.

The movie is quite silly though not without a certain amount of charm.  It’s most tired at the beginning and the end, when plot tropes outweigh character development.  When we meet Simon, he is a broadly comic character, but by the end he is slowly dying (just because he’s dying), the two men will bond in the ways that they have to in a movie like this.

Somewhere in the middle, however, the movie moves at a nice rhythm, playing with some of the Gen X qualities of movies like Reality Bites (1994) and Kicking and Screaming (1995) in which the characters feel unique to the time and relevant to the story being told, as if it’s a story that can only be about this moment in time (early to mid 90s).

Brendan Fraser plays the more timeless and bland protagonist, the one whose mundanity acts as the calm of the storm.  Around him are his more loony, defined roommates.  There is Jeff (Josh Hamilton who also starred in Kicking and Screaming), the uptight, nervous med school student who doesn’t respond well to Simon’s increased presence in their life.  There’s Courtney (Moira Kelly), playing some version of Winona Ryder in Reality Bites; the roommate whose only real character arc here, now that I think about it, is to fall in love with Monty.  She is also a character written in the same vein as Monica from Friends.  Lastly there’s the oddball of the group, Everett (Patrick Dempsey), a hip-looking college radio DJ whose long hair and John Lennon glasses make him seem like the most visible symbol of the times.

I guess the biggest indicator of the era is Monty’s and Jeff’s shared obsession over finishing their thesis on time.  My limited sense of this generation of people, to make a broad judgment, is the no nonsense get things done attitude that often misses the bigger picture.  In movies at least these characters are made to seem ambitious to a fault, a counterpoint to the “slackers” who had been pushed to the fringes of society; these are characters who are happy to play the game if only because they’ve never questioned it, at least as long as it benefits them directly.*

So Monty’s arc is learning to step outside of the game and see it for just that, a game.  He will finish his thesis, adopting a more optimistic view of the world in the process, but because he doesn’t turn it in on time it means he won’t graduation with honors.  But who cares?  I mean Monty cared, but it’s not long before he learns not to care, and it’s not like we ever cared.

There are a few playful moments at the heart of this film, and the acting performances are pretty good except for when Joe Pesci goes too big and loud.  In the moment many of the performances feel even riveting until you take a step back and realize how contrived the story has been to get us there.

So Simon is an imposition into Monty’s life, but soon he softens up to the old man, recognizing his value as a human and seeing him as more than just a bum.  He’s looking past the label, in other words.

It takes Jeff longer to come around on Simon, but Courtney and Everett take to him pretty quickly, welcoming him in like he’s part of the family.  There is something quite enjoyable about all this, and it made me want to spend more time in their shared college apartment.  The characters are vivid enough to want to hang with, but the movie plows right on through to get to the intended emotional climax which is sad but silly and almost beat for beat identical to other similar movies.

It’s as if there is a really cool, subversive indie movie somewhere in here, with these characters and this setting, but the movie sees it as only set dressing, choosing instead to deliver the same emotional beats as the last movie to turn an acceptable profit.

*Just spitballing here, but maybe this idea of the “yuppy” type in the early to mid-90s developed because these were people who grew up without any generation-defining event.  In the 50’s you had the Cold War and its Red Scaring Fear Mongering Joseph McCarthy-ism raining on the post WW2 parade.  In the 60s you have your pick of the litter, whether it’s the JFK assassination, the outbreak of the Vietnam war or the assassinations of MLK and RFK.  In the 70s you have that continuing, escalating war in Vietnam and then the Watergate Scandal.  

Using Monty as en example, he would’ve been born sometime between 1970 and 1972 (though Brendan Fraser was born in 1968).  Let’s say it’s 1970.  He would thus have been only 4 years old during Watergate and probably too young to soak that in.  His experience of such a thing would have more to do with the 1976 film All the President’s Men in which the scandal may have been outshone by the general power of movie stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.  

So basically Monty grew up with what, the Challenger Disaster?  I mean that’s got to be traumatizing, but his only takeaway may have been “that’s what happens when you go to Space” meaning he would’ve been further emboldened to keep following the rules down on the ground.  I don’t think there was any long-lasting conflict that begun in his time which he would have learned to live with.  The problems were either long ago or ongoing from previous eras and thus were taken for granted.  What he and others may have witnessed during their formative years were the presidencies of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan, a former actor whose presidency, from my admittedly limited knowledge, is known most for third world covert operations and a drug crackdown.  

The defining movies of the 80s, too, seem to provide no further introspection towards the culture at large.  Gone were many of the character studies of the 70s, replaced with movies about Aliens, Predators, and Ghostbusters.  What you did have, for Monty and co. were the John Hughes high school movies which played up the melodrama of what it was like to live through that time.  Those in this demographic, I think, may have found on the big screen representations of themselves right as they were then and not as they might one day become.  If it’s down to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Molly Ringwald as your only cinematic points of reference, you are more likely to relate to Ringwald.

In other words, people of this age may have been hyper focused on their own, narrow world, the one that hardly extends past the boundary of their high school property line.  To them what’s real occurs in those hallways, and around that they immerse themselves in the spectacle of those Schwarzenegger fantasy movies or the popular video games and MTV music videos of the time.  ‘What’s here is what’s real, and what’s out there is fantastical,’ something like that.  Such an idea only further separates you from the broader world conflict and helps you continue to walk your own line.

As a result these white and privileged characters were allowed to “flourish” insofar as they didn’t have much concern for the problems of the broader world because they never saw them.  They didn’t have family, presumably, incarcerated for drug offenses, and they didn’t know about those who did.  They were raised by people exhausted by the trials of their own youth in the 60s/70s who were content to settle down, and without similar such trials, Monty and company just followed the rules.

The rules, then, get them to where they are in With Honors, and this film marks the first time in Monty’s life that he figures out there might be a time to deviate from the path in life bequeathed to him.  But again, this is just me spitballing here, and I never lived through the 80s.

Up Next: Ordinary People (1980), Pet Sematary (1989), Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

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