High School: Today’s Teens Contract Reefer Madness

School kids run wild, under the influence of magic brownies, and so do Adrian Brody and Michael Chiklis in a couple of surpassingly weird performances

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Neil Jacobs / Anchor Bay Film

(from left to right): Matt Bush, Adrien Brody, and Sean Marquette star in High School

Charlyne Phuc (Julia Ling), a teen brainiac of Vietnamese ancestry, sabotages her chances of winning an all-star Spelling Bee when she blows a relatively simple word, logorrhea, because her brain’s been fried on marijuana. The next day’s headline reads: “Phuc No!”

In his love of all things rude and obvious, this opening scene offers a clue to why High School, which was shot some time in the last decade (our guess: the fall of 2008) and played at Sundance in early 2010, is just now reaching movie theaters. John Stalberg Jr.’s High School strictly follows the adolescent giggles and phobias required of stoner movies — the disreputable subgenre that shambles Up in Smoke to Pineapple Express — while displaying enough care behind the camera to suggest that not everyone associated with the movie was wasted during its making.

(MORE: Read Corliss’s review of Pineapple Express)

It also features two performances — by Michael Chiklis as Morgan High School’s pompous, venal headmaster and Adrian Brody as a violence-prone drug connoisseur — so startlingly rambunctious-slash-embarrassing that each actor could be oblige to hand back his respective Emmy or Oscar. Or maybe the deranged vigor that Chiklis and Brody apply to their roles is liberating; it probably depends on what substances viewers have ingested while watching the movie. Since smoking of any kind has long been prohibited in multiplexes, High School is best seen, if seen at all, in the family basement with towels rolled up at the door cracks.

Henry Burke (Matt Bush) is a Morgan honors student and presumptive valedictorian who’s headed to MIT — if only he can ace one last exam and pass the school drug test ordered hy Headmaster Gordon (Chiklis) the next day. Neither of those will happen: his one-time pal, now serial stoner Travis Breaux (Sean Marquette) has coaxed Henry into sharing a joint of “pharmaceutical-grade Hindu kush” that instantly addles this decent kid’s mind and may wreck his life. Breaux’s solution: get the entire student body high on brownies — there’s also a bake sale that momentous day — so all tests must be discarded and Henry’s academic record can remain pristine. The source for the brownies’ high-grade ganja will be a stash held by the local dopester legend Psycho Ed (Brody), whom no one crosses with impunity.

Boasting a supporting cast a little above its quality grade — including Colin Hanks as the Headmaster’s assistant and Yeardley Smith (Lisa Simpson) and Curtis Armstrong (who, a lifetime ago, was the immortal Booger in Revenge of the Nerds) as teachers — the movie counts on Bush’s semi-cute winsomeness to sell the central role of the overachieving high-school kid in trouble. On the iconographic axis that has Tom Cruise in Risky Business at one end and Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore at the other, Bush is closer to Schwartzman, with the fret level raised to Orange. (He also stars in Piranha 3DD, opening the same day as High School.) Marquette, who has a gift for spitting out obscene dialogue, looks so much like a teen John Belushi with a slightly higher IQ that the movie, simply by the casting, nominates itself as a grandchild of National Lampoon’s Animal House.

(LIST: John Belushi in Top 10 Post-SNL Careers)

Chiklis, long before shaving his head, dropping 40 pounds and scowling his way to renown as the brutal cop Vic Mackey on The Shield, played Belushi in the 1989 bio-pic Wired. He goes another weird way as Dr. Gordon. He speaks in a mid-Atlantic accent not heard since Laird Cregar skulked through ’40s melodramas. Sporting spectacles, matted hair, a three-piece suit and a sneer for all occasions, Chiklis could pass for a rumpled sibling of John Hodgman in his current disreputable-mustache phase. It’s the sort of grandly foolish turn to which distinguished actors commit themselves when they think no one’s watching. This time, probably no one will.

(MORE: James Poniewozik on Michael Chiklis and The Shield)

But Chiklis is a marvel of minimalism compared with Brody, who doesn’t breathe life into the character of Psycho Ed so much as he sets it afire, like a flaming turd bag dumped on the principal’s doorstep. When Henry and Breaux invade Ed’s lair, High School lurches to comic vitality. His upper body embroidered with a network of tattoos that, in sum, might be a madman’s illustrated autobiography, Ed dwells in a haunted mansion with some other stoned toughs and his beloved pet frog, to which, in one morose moment, he murmurs, “I hate for you to see me like this.” All others, including the school kids, he berates like a noisier, way nosier Voldemort. A triumph of bravado over self-regard, Brody’s performance won’t earn him a Oscar to place next to the one he earned for The Pianist nine years ago, but it’s the only thing that makes High School marginally worth catching.

One of Ed’s cohorts is a guy named Paranoid (Mykelti Wilkinson — Bubba from Forrest Gump). When Henry innocently asks, “Why do they call you Paranoid?”, the dude shouts defensively, “Why do you wanna know, man?” What’s strangest about this stoner movie is that it’s as paranoid as Paranoid. It largely ignores the bliss of a marijuana high and focuses on a user’s fear of getting caught with the stuff. Let us itemize the wages of dope: Phuc screws up, Henry nearly torpedoes his golden future and drug use leads to two car crashes.

Granted that the invariable theme of comedies is the lure of irresponsibility and the middle finger raised against propriety, but High School deals in all the effects of illegal drugs your parents and teachers warned you about. The film could be a feature-length PSA: an admonishing Reefer Madness for this generation.

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