Packing in more confounding slang than a Wu-Tang record and more gonzo subplots than a Pynchon novel, relentlessly manic high-school horror-comedy “Detention” will leave most viewers winded after the first reel. Writer-director Joseph Kahn labors mightily to maintain a speed-freak pace throughout, though his script and cast run out of gas long before he does, and hence what starts as a bracing rush quickly devolves into a deadening assault of stimuli. Not without merits, the film may ultimately prove too strange for the multiplex and far too glib for the arthouse.
Previously seen helming musicvideos and 2004’s Ice Cube starrer “Torque” (which is disparagingly referenced here, in one of the film’s nonstop inside jokes), Kahn attempts to tackle a melange of teenage trash culture in an entirely teenage idiom. A bravura opening establishes this mood well via considerable direct-to-camera addresses and ironic onscreen text, delivering a lightning-fast bio of an obnoxious teenage mean girl, her family, her fashion, her tastes and peccadilloes, only to have her bloodily murdered by a prom-dress-wearing ghoul before the credits even roll.
Once they do, we’ve taken the first of an innumerable series of time shifts back to a few weeks earlier and been introduced to our actual cast of characters. There’s ostensible protagonist Riley (Shanley Caswell), a mishap-prone outcast; her sarcastic skater friend, Clapton (Josh Hutcherson), who despite his boomer namesake has big dreams of writing for Pitchfork after graduation; horny nerd Sander (Aaron David Johnson); and ’90s-obsessed hot girl Ione (Spencer Locke). For good measure, there’s also a ‘roided-out jock with a Human Fly problem, a facially scarred principal played by Dane Cook, a Hanson cover band, a time machine, a stuffed-bear sex act, a kid serving his second decade of detention and a bustier-clad teacher who seems to have teleported in from a Skinemax pic.
The film hits all the expected marks (the impossibly wild party, the prom, the titular detention), just barely keeping the central serial-killer plot in motion while tipping its hat toward a plethora of teen-movie antecedents. Perhaps its biggest stumbling block — aside from the crushing paucity of genuinely funny jokes in the second half — is that it seems to expect its audience to actually keep track of its poorly balanced blitz of subplots, with punchlines arriving long after their setups have been forgotten. The average viewer can only chuckle uncomprehendingly for so long.
Tech aspects are crisply handled, and the opening credits are creatively rendered, even if the eye-catching graphics make it nearly impossible to make out most of the names onscreen.