I have a soft spot for scathing black comedies set in a high school environment, so I was eager to check out Bryan Goluboff's "Beware the Gonzo." In addition to the subject matter, which really appealed to me, the film stars Ezra Miller whom I am convinced has the chops to become a major talent. Miller stole his every scene in the quirky crowd-pleaser "City Island," turned in compelling work in "Afterschool," is mesmerizing and chilling in the festival favorite "We Need To Talk About Kevin," and has scored with a couple of amusing TV roles. In short, he's on the right track to stardom in these great performances that expertly blend comedic and dramatic prowess. If you are a fan of Miller or any of the other young actors within "Beware the Gonzo," I might suggest you take a look. However, despite having a terrific premise, the film fluctuates all over the place in tone and gets mired down in a bit too many cliches and silliness. It's a shame. As the film began and we're introduced to the cast, this seemed like it had the potential to be a winner (albeit a mean spirited one). What starts as a biting comedy (4 stars) soon loses all sense of believability (2 stars) and morphs into a moralistic after school special (3 stars). I liked elements within the film, but ended up being more frustrated than anything when it veered into the realm of nonsensical.
Again, the idea behind the film is inspired and fun. Miller, an aspiring journalist, and his appropriately misfit friends decide to initiate an underground school paper to challenge the power hierarchy that rules the school. Jesse McCartney single-handedly represents every over-the-top evil characteristic necessary to make him an easy villain (he even has the school's only adult, the principal, cow-towing to him!). Much of the humor is expected and familiar, but early scenes have a refreshing unpleasantness and bite. After producing a paper that would get him expelled, the principal laughs it off (he is given permission to do so by McCartney who is also strangely present in the disciplinary meeting). Where are the outraged parents? This is a wildly inappropriate document for this private school (which in no ways seems like an institution someone would pay for). The warfare escalates as Miller and cohorts expose a story that (in reality) would close down the school, make national headlines, and initiate a school board inquiry. It does make a small blip with the health department, but again--the lack of public outcry is disconcerting. This story becomes a central plot point as Miller continues to investigate and McCartney seeks to discredit him. Eventually it becomes ridiculous as the matter is weighty enough to have state intervention, not school newspaper squabbles.
Of course, in this ruthless battle of wills, Miller must decide what is important. Truth? Friendship? Retribution? Vindication? As he is steered by a single-minded purpose, he just might lose the integrity that has made him the school's rebel champion. Miller is quite good, even when I stopped believing in any aspect of the plot. The great Campbell Scott and the invaluable Amy Sedaris are also on hand as Miller's parents, but are disconnected to any of the central action. They might have been able to keep things grounded. The film starts out quite funny, but loses its way with increasingly preposterous twists. For a black comedy to really work, it must be based in truth and be identifiable. This is where "Beware the Gonzo" lost me. And when it tried to pull me back with a maudlin ending and lessons learned, it was already too late. KGHarris, 1/12.