Although it falls far short of fulfilling its full potential as a dark comedy of desperation, "Dead Man on Campus" is a modestly amusing trifle that merits a passing grade as lightweight entertainment.

Although it falls far short of fulfilling its full potential as a dark comedy of desperation, “Dead Man on Campus” is a modestly amusing trifle that merits a passing grade as lightweight entertainment. Pic likely will be a box office underachiever during its end-of-summer playoff, but cable and homevid prospects are reasonably bright.

Tom Everett Scott, of “That Thing You Do!,” once again recalls a younger Tom Hanks in the lead role of Josh Miller, an Indiana-born honor student who wins an academic scholarship for a six-year medical program at the prestigious Daleman College. But Cooper (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), his hard-partying roommate, has plans that don’t include studying.

The self-indulgent son of a well-to-do businessman, Cooper sees it as his duty to drag Josh away from his books and into the good life. Before long, Josh is carousing like a natural-born party animal — drinking, smoking pot and enjoying extracurricular activities with Rachel (Poppy Montgomery), another first-year student.

But the long party ends with a sobering wake-up call: Josh flunks all of his midterm exams and finds himself in danger of losing his scholarship. Cooper is more accustomed to academic failure, but he, too, is badly rattled by his own midterm grades — because he knows that if he flunks out of college, he will have to work for his father’s janitorial business.

Frantic to find a way to boost their grades, Josh and Cooper discover an obscure loophole in the college’s charter: Any student whose roommate commits suicide during the semester gets an automatic 4.0 grade average. (“It’s like a consolation prize,” Cooper reasons.) All they have to do is find a student who’s on the verge of self-destruction, move the unfortunate fellow into their dorm room — and prepare to look suitably grief-stricken when the inevitable occurs.

To offset the potentially off-putting aspects of the plot, first-time feature director Alan Cohn takes great pains to sustain a tone more mis-chievous than malevolent. It’s made clear that Josh and Cooper plan to be not-so-innocent bystanders, rather than active participants, in any demise. It helps a lot that the lead characters are played so engagingly and sympathetically by Scott and Gosselaar. It helps even more that, despite their best efforts to select a sufficiently suicidal roommate, they are three times unlucky.

In sharp contrast to many recent comedies, “Dead Man on Campus” relies very little on gross-out humor and actually evinces a fair amount of restraint. Indeed, some of the writing has a nicely satirical edge, especially in regard to would-be suicide Matt (Corey Page), a wannabe rock star whose chief goal in life is to be interviewed by MTV’s Kurt Loder (who, naturally, appears as himself in this MTV Films production).

On the other hand, pic may upset some disapproving observers with its depiction of drugs and booze as guilt-free pleasures. In this regard, there’s a definite ’70s air to the madcap goings-on.

Among the supporting players, Lochlyn Munro, as a student, makes a vivid impression by coming across like Gary Busey on speed, while Page offers a clever portrait of a pretentious poser. Pic is well paced and edited to a brisk 93 minutes, with nary a dull stretch. Tech credits are first-rate, and the soundtrack should generate impressive CD sales.

Dead Man on Campus

Production

A Paramount Pictures release in association with MTV Films of a Pacific Western production. Produced by Gale Anne Hurd. Executive producers, David Gale, Van Toffler. Co-producer, Maggie Malina. Directed by Alan Cohn. Screenplay, Michael Traeger, Mike White, based on a story by Anthony Abrams, Adam Larson Broder.

Crew

Camera (color), John Thomas; editor, Debra Chiate; music, Mark Mothersbaugh; music supervisors, Peter Afterman, Amy Finnerty; production designer, Carol Winstead Wood; set designer, Antoinette Judith Gordon; set decorator, Jan K. Bergstrom; costume designer, Kathleen Detoro; sound (Dolby Digital), Walt Martin, Willie Burton; casting, Deborah Aquila, Jane Shannon-Smith. Reviewed at Cinemark Tinseltown Westchase Cinema, Houston, Aug. 18, 1998. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Josh Miller - Tom Everett Scott
Cooper - Mark-Paul Gosselaar Rachel - Poppy Montgomery Cliff - Lochlyn Munro Buckley - Randy Pearlstein Matt - Corey Page Lucy - Alyson Hannigan Kristin - Mari Morrow Zeke - Dave Ruby
With: Mark Carapezza, Jeff T, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, Aeryk Egan.
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