The motivating credo of its hero may be “from bitch to bull,” but “The New Guy” is nothing but a mouse on the teen movie block. Conceived and lensed when Bill Clinton was still in the White House, much-delayed pic is rightly coming out at the start of the “dumb” season, when pre-college teens are most likely to turn out for this crude fantasy about a nerd’s quest for coolness. Popularity with the school crowd will wear off after opening week, but next semester in ancillary should attract a fresh clique.
Opening framing device of David Kendall’s script allows prison inmate Luther (Eddie Griffin) to relate how he helped turn weakling Dizzy Gillespie Harrison (DJ Qualls) into something of an intimidating stud — or as much of one as a kid of Dizzy’s spindly frame can be. Dizzy is, in his own words, “officially, the biggest loser at my school.” His dad, Bear (Lyle Lovett), wears braces and seems oblivious to Dizzy being everyone’s punching bag. But his close pals and funk-band mates (Zooey Deschanel, Jerod Mixon, Parry Shen) help him get through the rough times.
An incident at the local mall somehow sends Dizzy to prison, where he’s housed with grizzled inmates, including Luther, who also was picked on by school bullies. Sympathizing, Luther suggests Dizzy arrange being expelled from his current school (being an inmate is evidently not sufficient grounds), and remake himself into a tough version at a new school. Later, revisiting Luther in the tank, Dizzy picks up several pointers before landing at East Highland High, where bullies like Conner (Ross Patterson) rule the roost. But the comic timing on scene after scene is consistently off, so the irony of how Dizzy is kicked off campus is lost.
Like several other sequences, Dizzy’s entrance as a kind of muzzled Hannibal Lecter is designed to be ridiculously over the top, but the comic tone keeps shifting senselessly between goofy movie send-ups, cruel physical comedy (including a small-statured kid being pummeled in a garbage can) and standard high school relationship stuff. The latter is dominated by top cheerleader Danielle (Eliza Dushku), so impressed with Dizzy standing up to b.f. Conner that she dumps the guy, not knowing Dizzy is concealing his inner geek.
Dizzy’s character seems designed to be self-consciously retro, driven — despite his jazz-heritage name — by his love of the funk, and which may explain why “Risky Business,” “Braveheart,” “Patton” and even Annette Funicello movies (all quite old-school by the target aud’s standards) are liberally, elaborately — yet ineptly — spoofed. A last-minute attempt by Dizzy’s new and old enemies to undo him is the final set piece that, along with the rest, play off-key.
Distinguished by certain rodent-like features, Qualls is a bargain-basement, pre-adult version of David Spade — and becomes just as tiresome. His co-stars surrender in the face of Qualls’ ravenous tendency to steal scenes — all except Griffin, who has a recurring and satisfying bit of shtick. Dushku will keep boys’ hearts thumping, but Lovett and Ileanna Douglas’ perfs are regrettable. Pic is stuffed with a cornucopia of cameos, all fairly pointless, by pop culture icons both legendary (skateboarding god Tony Hawk) and notorious (Vanilla Ice).
Results onscreen are unsightly, with point-and-shoot lensing and a muddy and badly mixed soundtrack completing the overall aroma of movie junk food.