Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On DVD: "Class Act"

Here’s the problem: If I had viewed Class Act cold, for the first time, on this afternoon in May 2010, I would be writing a far more negative review than you’re about to read. Because I can hem and haw all I want, but the fact of the matter is, it really isn’t a very good film; the situations are contrived, the jokes are mostly lame, and it’s basically a relic. But there’s the rub—it’s a relic from my time. I still remember going to the multiplex one warm June night in 1992 (opening weekend, no less) with a gang of friends to check it out, and coming out of it in the kind of cheery mood that you can only get from a movie that was aimed directly at you. Seeing it now, it doesn’t work particularly well as a narrative, but it probably didn’t then, either; at that time, it was just good fun. Now, it’s a freeze-frame of that fun.

The film is a vehicle for Kid ‘N Play, the likable and comparatively innocent hip-hop duo who starred in 1990’s surprise hit House Party and its first sequel the following year (they returned to the franchise in 1994). The story is seen in flashbacks, told by our hero in a jail cell to a guard who can’t care less (the device is overused in the first half, all but forgotten in the second). The script (credited to no less than five different writers) is an urban teen rewrite of The Prince and the Pauper, with “Kid” (aka Christopher Reid) as straight-A student Duncan Pinderhughes, and “Play” (Christopher Martin) playing “Blade” Brown, roughneck petty criminal. Some zany slapstick with an oddly sexed-up school secretary on the first day of school mixes up the two teenagers’ files, so Blade finds himself in the school’s pristine honors wing, while Duncan is left to mix it up with the ruffians in general population. But Blade needs good grades to keep his parole officer off his back, so he proposes to Duncan that they keep the ruse going; Duncan agrees, mainly to keep Blade from beating him up, but also because he needs a phys ed credit to get into his dream school. It doesn’t hurt that, during that first day, they’ve each met a girl who is drawn to their new persona.

So what we’ve basically got is a reverse Pygmalion—Blade the hustler teaching uptight, dorky Duncan how to act, look, and talk street. Some of this stuff is obvious and not terribly funny (the “teach the nerd how to dance” scene is as much a requirement in this genre as the “hand in your gun and badge” is in cop movies), but there are some memorable moments, including a particularly funny scene of Blade trying to teach Duncan how to talk in hip-hop slang. The writing is lackluster, but the duo commits to it, and by the end of the bit, their miscommunication skirts the inspired lunacy of an old Abbott & Costello routine.

Those little, natural gags work, and the leads are engaging. I seem to recall Reid getting more recognition as a performer at the time, but nearly two decades later, Martin is the more interesting actor; he’s charismatic, and his coming timing is razor-sharp. Reid is, admittedly, hamstrung by the cartoonish nature of his character and the film’s portrait of upper-class living, which is about as subtle as your average episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—and sure enough, Karyn Parsons is on hand (and good) as Martin’s romantic interest. Reid works opposite Alysia Rogers, the unbearably sexy actress who did Boyz N the Hood and this film, and then disappeared completely. But as potentially pat as those romantic subplots are, they’re one of the picture’s best qualities—there’s a sweetness to them, and something real and poignant in the freedom each man finds in his new identity. Some of the supporting players are pretty good as well, like Rick Ducommun as the parole officer (“Grab a seat, punk, and turn down the volume on that jacket!”), Loretta Devine as Blade’s mom, and Doug E. Doug, who brings his offbeat comic energy to what is basically the Martin Lawrence role. On the other hand, Meschach Taylor plays Duncan’s dad as the most broad, insufferable caricature imaginable—and then there’s the Pauly Shore appearance, which stops the movie dead. It doesn’t help that he’s basically there to provide the thin excuse for a Kid ‘N Play music number (he invites them to perform at—get this—an anti-drug rally); his schtick has never been more tiresome, and when they keep cutting away to him dancing during the song, you want to find the editor and punch him in the face.

Randall Miller (whose more recent efforts have included Bottle Shock and Nobel Son) directs in a fast, aggressive style that doesn’t linger too long on the scenes that don’t work, and there are plenty. The more obvious bits and comic set pieces—like Duncan trying to pick up girls in a nightclub—mostly land with a thud, the car chase is dull, the gags in the hoary wax-museum climax are flaccid, and the extra ending is so clearly one too many, you can feel them rushing through it. The most unfortunate element is the “gay panic” subplot that Duncan’s parents are saddled with; you see, early on, they overhear something that makes them think Blade and Duncan are gay together, and the misunderstandings that follow must’ve been nice and fresh when they were on Three’s Company fifteen years earlier. The groaner payoff of that “running joke” comes in the very last scene, ending the otherwise charming flick on rather an ugly note.

My (mostly unearned) affection for Class Act kicks up during the opening credits—scored to the expected faux-New Jack music (“Work that body, work that body/Class act!”)—and colors the whole damn film, whether I like it or not. From the Chess King-style fashions to the “here’s the top five songs right now” soundtrack (which includes “U Can’t Touch This,” “The Booming System,” “Forever My Lady,” Jade’s “I Wanna Love You Down”, and Monie Love’s “It’s A Shame”) to the goofy, silly vibe of the entire enterprise, it’s an early-‘90s time capsule. For this viewer, it remains a warm and likable movie. But maybe you had to be there.

"Class Act" made its long-awaited (by some, anyway) DVD debut this month as part of the Warner Archive Collection.

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