'With Honors' settles for cheap sentiment

April 29, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"With Honors" is earnest, do-gooding, sweet-tempered, compassionate, humane and pretty gutless.

It's about a circle of self-absorbed Harvard undergrads on the fast track to the good life who are forced to confront one of society's invisible men -- a homeless wretch who lives off garbage and memories. Naturally, from exposure to him, they learn and grow and improve.

Although the material is promising, William Mastrosimone's screenplay is both sketchy and thin: The inevitable emotional ties come too easily and the project is completely undone by Joe Pesci's robo-mouthed charm as the homeless Simon Wilder, which makes it too easy to love him. The thin-haired Pesci has even been given a thickly luxuriant wig; he looks like a rock star! He's the sexiest homeless guy you ever saw!

How much more difficult and courageous a project it would have been if instead of a philosopher-saint who quotes Whitman under his rags, he'd been a thorny, ignorant pathological deviant, a drug addict and alcoholic and -- this is truly shattering -- lacking even in irony! Learning to love such a man and invest with compassion in his fate -- his right by virtue of his humanity, but hard, very hard -- would be a moral accomplishment of a higher order!

The movie always takes the easy way out. That's not to say it isn't handsome or well-acted, merely that it's lazy and cheap. For example, early in the going -- far too early -- it wheezily contrives to get Pesci into a government class taught by Gore Vidal with the snooty arrogance of a Mandarin emperor cracking open 100-year-old turtle eggs.

Soon enough, Pesci is lecturing the astounded Vidal on what a jerk he is, to the gushing huzzahs of all and sundry. It's cheap because the movie doesn't use this opportunity to clarify issues or to articulate points of view -- conservative vs. liberal -- on the terrible problem of the homeless; instead, it's all empty grandstanding, like Al Pacino's shameless blowhard speech at the end of the equally grotesque "Scent of a Woman."

Primarily, it's Brendan Fraser who must bear the emotional weight of the story. Again, the movie cheats, by providing him with a father-bereft background that makes his projection of feelings on Pesci too easy. Although Fraser is a good actor, his conversion to adoration simply comes too fast, particularly in view of the premise on which the relationship began.

This is the most promising aspect of the film, too swiftly abandoned. Fraser, who's just lost the hard-drive copy of his senior thesis, is rushing to the nearest Xerox machine with the only hard copy of it that exists when he trips and launches the MS. into space just in front of the library. It comes to rest -- forget the physics involved -- in the sub-sub-sub-basement where Pesci has taken up residence.

Like many homeless people, he's become extremely wily in the ways of survival; understanding his leverage, he holds the thesis hostage, ransoming it back a page at a time in exchange for a daily grubstake. Very good touch: The relationship is shaky, edgy with hostility, playing up the vast gulf that separates them and the vast gulf that separates the homeless from the homed.

But he soon impresses Fraser with his wit and wisdom, and he's been invited into the house where, in no short order, he imprints his worthiness on Fraser's roommates (Moira Kelly, Patrick Dempsey and Josh Hamilton). But can that hacking cough signal soap opera? Do I sense the approach of weeping jags, large-scale Kleenex consumption, trembly lips and moist goo-goo eyes? Yes, I do.

Give the movie credit for one thing: It at least doesn't sentimentalize Pesci to the degree that it forgives him the abandonment of his family. There's a key, and tough, scene where the Harvard kids take him to face the son who's had to build a life without a dad. Good stuff: no gushy all-is-forgiven stuff, just the acknowledgment that some sins are beyond cheap redemption.

"With Honors"

Starring Joe Pesci and Brendan Fraser

Directed by Alek Keshishian

Released by Warner Bros.

PG-13

** 1/2

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