Dead Man on Campus
directed by Alan Cohn
starring Tom Everett Scott and Mark-Paul Gosselaar
Formula for an objective movie review: send someone like me who absolutely abhors Hollywood for its infantile story lines and offensive way of sacrificing any intelligence for the lowest common denominator dictated by the bottom dollar. For example: the best film of the last eight years, 1997’s The Whole Wide World, went completely ignored while the sappy, derivative, special effects crapfest Titanic was hailed as perhaps better than 1959’s Ben Hur. William Wyler? Who?
Thusly, send me to a movie and I will look for things the “average” movie-goer can’t see. I will focus all of my attention on what the film is about, recognizing that the “stars” are simply the tools through which the director tells the story. Keep in mind that I say “send me” and not “I will go see.” (I don’t watch TV much at all and asked one of my fellow reviewers, all of whom were avid film and TV fans, if Dead Man on Campus was heavily advertised. Apparently, its advertisements have monopolized television!)
On the face of it, Dead Man on Campus is about two college freshmen who devise a scheme to save their failing grades: if a roommate of theirs commits suicide during the term, the school will give them a 4.0 for the semester as sort of a trade-off for the trauma incurred. (We had this rumor at my school, too.)
And on the face of it, this is a movie you’d have to pay me to see! And I was literally paid to see this film! Breakfast was on Paramount, along with a bus ride to the beautiful MTV building for the screening and an after-film interview with star, Tom Everett Scott.
However utterly stupid and juvenile the movie should have been, I found it dark and terrifyingly real.
The acting and script are very good, as the characters do, in fact, look as if they’re actually communicating with each other and not simply regurgitating memorized lines. The well-played story, though, is what really nailed me.
Tom Everett Scott plays Josh, an exceptional freshman student enrolled in a six-year pre-med program on full scholarship. Mark-Paul Gosselaar plays Cooper, Josh’s roommate, who’s a worldly, lazy, pot-smoking freeloader. Coop doesn’t study, doesn’t attend classes, and believes that school gets in the way of college. Josh is, much to his chagrin, corrupted by Cooper, and soon in imminent danger of losing his scholarship. Hence, after hearing of the 4.0 trade for a suicidal roommate, Josh and Cooper go on a quest for the right third party. Their plan: find the most depressed student on campus, have him move in with them and off himself before finals are over. What a stupid, offensive-to-thinking-people premise. However…
What makes this film, in my opinion, a combination of Heathers and A Clockwork Orange is its vividly realistic portrayal of a desperate college freshman who’s succumbed to temptation and in danger of losing everything. Cooper, the lazy bum, lives life to the fullest, but his rich father, who provides the bucks needed for such a lifestyle, makes it clear that this time he’ll pull the plug if Coop flunks out. My freshman year I had a roommate just like that, nicknamed “Fuckin’ Doug,” who never attended classes either — he was too busy with the girls earning his nickname, resulting in a fall GPA of .65, a .58 in the spring and a boot out the door from the college.
People like Cooper/Doug are very dangerous to goal-oriented, motivated students like Josh, as they never really understand (nor care about) the devastation their antics cause. Cooper, the Tempter, in trying to see his evil plans through, nearly destroys the lives of six people: he tries to bring three students to suicide, refuses to help another one who almost succeeds, is responsible for a woman (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Alyson Hannigan) nearly getting her face burned off, and let’s not forget Josh, who’s about to lose his full scholarship at a very expensive private college. For those of you who were paralyzed in fear by Dennis Hopper’s performance in Blue Velvet, put yourself in the position of someone under Cooper’s charm and you’ll shake in terror. Those of you who’ve seen The King of Comedy with Robert DeNiro and Jerry Lewis will understand exactly what mean by dark. I expressed this to Tom Everett Scott (who’s very normal) after the screening, and he gave me a long, ponderous look. Maybe I was the only one who liked the film, since everyone else seemed to ask only about Tom’s personal life…
Josh is by no means an innocent, but he’s a very serious student. He’s dedicated to studying, but Cooper just doesn’t let him off the hook, and Josh succumbs to the temptations of bongs, beer, and babes. One babe, Rachel, a Creative Writing major played by Poppy Montgomery, finds Josh attractive and appreciates his honest sanity in balance with Cooper’s irresponsibility. After a very enjoyable fling with Rachel, during which time Josh becomes too lax in his studies, falling in with Cooper’s hedonism, there occurs the most frightening scene in the film. Now stay with me, because all you science and engineering majors need to see this film to understand how brilliantly it’s played out on the screen. Josh is taking an impossible (and unrealistic) course load, including Organic Chemistry, Anatomy and Physiology, and Calculus 3 — first semester of freshman year? Impossible. Nevertheless, had the writers given Josh realistic courses (General Chemistry 1, Physics 1, Introduction to Biology — regardless of AP standing in high school) even one long weekend of partying would’ve left him hopelessly behind in his studies. He knows this, and you can see the inner conflict, his looming guilt, his self-disgust over failing because he simply didn’t bother to study (“I’ve never failed anything in my life,” he complains). But since he’s got Cooper around to cheer him up and hand him the bong, maybe things aren’t so bad.
But when Rachel, who’s in a major that’s a cakewalk compared to Josh’s, presents Josh with her short story to read, the look on Josh’s face is priceless: Rachel is focused on her classes; not only that, but she’s accomplishing things and is proud enough of her work that she wants others to see it. Josh, on the other hand, even though deep inside he’s much smarter than everyone else, including this pretty Creative Writing major, realizes that he is a failure. What an incredible slice of life the creators of this film serve!
OK, besides all the bleak darkness of Dead Man on Campus, there’s hilarious parody of pretentious rock stars, jabs at Microsoft, unforgivable blasphemy (this is an anti-Catholic film), right-on characterization of homicidal fratboy alcoholics, a psychology professor named “Durkheim,” and a first day of college scene replete with doting moms and dads that sent chills down my spine. Plus there’s good music by Mark Mothersbaugh, the Dust Brothers, and a cover of “Golden Years” by Marylin Manson that’s actually good; I didn’t get the feeling that the film was built around a soundtrack of trendy music either.
Hints that Dead Man on Campus isn’t a low-grade Animal House clone: no nudity, realistic paranoia about grades and studying, no one looks like a movie star, realistic fringe acknowledgment of fraternities… I strongly recommend this film; file under “don’t judge a book by its cover.”