Three years after Rian Johnson’s “Brick” mixed the definitive high-school-movie-as-film-noir cocktail, along comes “Assassination of a High School President,” a more mainstream but considerably less interesting variation on the same theme. Twisty but soft-boiled comic yarn follows an aspiring journalist who uncovers a web of not-so-intriguing intrigue within the student body, including sex, drugs, exam thieves and paintball snipers. Fans of “The OC’s” Mischa Barton may be thrilled at the prospect of her playing yet another most beautiful girl on campus, but beyond scattered youth biz, August release will have a tough time making the B.O. grade.
Basically “Brick” for remedial viewers, “Assassination” lacks that film’s conceptual chutzpah, even if its premise — that high school can be as alien and frightening as any of Raymond Chandler’s mean streets — is essentially the same. Serving as the viewer’s guide to the mysteries of St. Donovan’s prep school is Bobby Funke (Reece Thompson), an ambitious sophomore who’s picked on by jocks and mistakenly called “Funky” throughout.
Though he’s known for missing deadlines, Funke is assigned by school newspaper editor Clara (Melonie Diaz) to write a profile on star basketball player and student council president Paul Moore (Patrick James Taylor), who’s so handsome and popular he often refers to himself in the third person. When a stack of finished SAT exams is stolen from the office of Principal Kirkpatrick (Bruce Willis), Funke puts two and two together and gets five, writing a story that blithely names Paul as the thief.
With Paul disgraced, stripped of his title and sentenced to what seems like permanent detention, his girlfriend, the gorgeous, gifted Francesca (Barton), starts making advances toward Funke. But as Funke digs deeper, he begins to question Paul’s guilt, discovering a much wider network of corruption involving the student council and perhaps even the whole student body.
Co-scenarists Tim Calpin and Kevin Jakubowski have some fun updating the tropes and conventions of detective fiction for an academic setting: Funke remarks on almost every development in Philip Marlowe-esque voiceover; a driving test morphs amusingly into a drug bust; allusions to “Chinatown” and other crime classics are dropped throughout.
But tonal control is crucial for such a genre hybrid, and it’s here that the picture falters. Where “Brick” embraced its hard-boiled soul with rat-a-tat-tat dialogue and stylistic verve, “Assassination,” whose characters more or less speak the language of contempo teens, is stuck between taking its concept seriously and spoofing it. First-time helmer Brett Simon’s instincts seem to tilt more toward teen comedy, but his fusion of fart jokes and film noir just doesn’t gel; result is a muddled parody — John Hughes’ “Farewell, My Lovely” — that surprisingly feels more mannered than anything in Johnson’s film, and significantly less inventive.
Thompson, so winning in last year’s “Rocket Science,” brings nothing new to the role of a typical plucky but socially inept adolescent. Willis does his bald-tough-guy thing as the surly headmaster, Barton does her pretty-blank-girl thing as a possible femme fatale and Josh Pais does a singularly unfunny impression of a gay Spanish priest. Other supporting characters register annoyingly or not at all.
New Jersey-lensed production boasts OK tech credits, although more could’ve been made of the Catholic setting. Print viewed at Sundance (which lacked final credits, music and sound) looked murky, and not in a good, purposefully noirish way.