The New Guy

The best of our filmmakers have never lost touch with their inner child. That sense of wonder has contributed to some of cinema's finest moments. It's when the inner child becomes an inner teenager that we run into problems, because of course, being a teen isn't so much a sense of wonder as a sense of irritation and self-pity. In proper doses, it can be quite funny to watch.

The New Guy remembers how painfully awkward high school can be, and occasionally succeeds in making it funny. But the movie also builds a sense of irritation, as first-time director Ed Decter can't really decide what he wants it to be when it grows up.

Dizzy Gillespie Harrison (DJ Qualls) grows up a nice quirky kid, determined to enter his senior year of high school as more than just a blip on the radar. But after trying to impress the head cheerleader ("if you wanted to drink coffee near me sometime, I'd pay for itů"), Dizzy almost immediately re-establishes himself as the school joke. (It's an ugly joke, involving the tragedy of having hormones and getting yanked around because of it.)

Due to a diagnosis of Dizzy's problem as Tourette's Syndrome and not dorkiness, he ends up overmedicated and in prison. Not just the drunk tank, because that wouldn't strain the movie's credibility. This is an out and out penitentiary, and Dizzy gets thrown in with the bull of the pen, Luther (Eddie Griffin).

Nobody messes with Luther, who finds an improbably kindred spirit in Dizzy. So he teaches the gawky youth how to be tough, and with the aid of the entire prison (including the guards), creates a new identity for him: new kid Gil Harris.

Harris gets delivered to a new school Hannibal Lecter-style, and rapidly uses his newfound knowledge for evil. If not evil, at least to take over the school and become almost as bad as his previous tormentors. Only due to a cutting remark from his best friend Nora (Zooey Deschanel) does he try to use his popularity for a higher purpose than bagging the head cheerleader Danielle (Eliza Dushku).

Creating a perfect high school environment, with no class divisions, is not only a noble dream (and a wet one for the California legislature), but ripe for some great satirical shots. But such promise never gets fulfilled. The unification comes too easily, and the opposition to it too stupid (two lone bullies, each from a different school, determine to bring down Gil). Eventually the movie succumbs to its soft and gooey nature with a "just be yourself" message telegraphed from minute one.

Despite some clever dialogue, the movie flounders in its identity. It could be an examination of high school class warfare, but stops past its vague definition of Gil and his friends as "blips." (Of course, if they were really just blips on the radar, then no one would notice them. So how come everybody does?) Luther compares high school to prison, but beyond his little monologue, the metaphor just drops.

And the film wants to be really cool, with Gil/Diz being part of a funk band (Qualls lipsynchs valiantly) and loving James Brown. So you'd think that maybe it would load up with cameos from giants of funk, right? You'd be wrong.

Instead, it's a paean to pop music fringe-dwellers, some whose coolness should have kept them out of this project. At least most of them turn in funny performances; an unrecognizable Vanilla Ice stands out as a former bouncer turned record store clerk just dying to throw someone out violently. But what is Tommy Lee doing there, not even playing a character, ostensibly lured by the promise of an appearance by Creed. Oddly enough, Creed doesn't appear, despite several mentions in the screenplay. This is no way to run a cheesy rock exploitation movie, which it threatens to become on occasion.

Yet with all that, the leads carry the movie well enough. Qualls has a loopy charm. While his caved-in frame makes it unbelievable that he could be the cool tough kid (the kid who sort of bemuses everyone, maybe), his attitude carries the hoax further than it has a right to go. And he has a good rapport with Lyle Lovett as his dad, in a role well-played but not given nearly enough to do. For the first time, I was amused, not annoyed, by Eddie Griffin.

In a decent showcase role, Dushku shines. Not because the part is that great, but because for the first time in a while, her standard screen persona gets used for a good girl. It shows that she has a little more flexibility than her last few movies. Of course, we love Eliza for being a bad girl, so Decter throws in a gratuitous bikini fashion show sequence. Both Qualls and the audience weep for gratitude.

Heck, though it's against my intent, I probably just sold an extra 500 tickets to the thing.

What's It Worth? $3.99

Derek McCaw

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