Thursday, January 29, 2004
From the behavior of the high schoolers in "The Perfect Score," one is led to believe that taking the SAT is as momentous a life event as getting married or experiencing the birth of a child. With that mindset it's no wonder these teens will do anything in order to notch a 1500 ... including stealing the answers.
"The Perfect Score" is not really a comedy or a heist movie, although its basic outline makes it seem like a comedy-heist flick. The film is actually a character study about how the lingering threat of the SAT system has corrupted some basically good kids into doing things they ordinarily wouldn't.
"From day one they tell us to be unique, to have a face. Then they give us all a standardized test," rants Kyle (Chris Evans).
All his life Kyle has yearned to be an architect, and the only way he can get into Cornell is to ace the SAT. Together with his less ambitious friend Matty (Bryan Greenberg), who wants to attend the University of Maryland to be with his estranged girlfriend, the pair hatch a plan to pilfer the answers from the Princeton Testing Center.
Before long, their accomplices have grown to include a top-of-her-class honor student (Erika Christensen), who froze while taking the exams; an NBA prospect (Darius Miles) who needs the grades to play for St. Johns; and an impulsive pothead (Leonardo Nam) who stumbles onto the plot and wants in on the action.
Perfect Score ** 1/2
High schoolers conspire to steal the answers to the SAT in this appealing lark. Although it has uneven elements of both a comedy and a heist flick, "Perfect Score" is really a character study about how the threat of the testing system has corrupted basically good kids into doing things they ordinarily wouldn't.
The gang's trump card is Francesca (Scarlett Johansson), whose philandering father has keys to the building. The rebellious rich kid doesn't care specifically about the SAT as much as she enjoys the prospect of committing a crime under her dad's nose.
Writers Marc Hyman and Jon Zack don't just use the SAT as a backdrop for a caper movie, they genuinely obsess about it. The screenplay not only dissects the history of the phenomenon (Did you know it was originally an abbreviation for Scholastic Aptitude Test but now stands for nothing other than the letters SAT?), but also presents a lot of tangled arguments to support how biased the test can be to certain groups.
All of this info would be immaterial if the viewer didn't connect with the characters, and the writers and director Brian Robbins ("Varsity Blues") are usually able to make that happen.
It's no surprise that Johansson shines. Between "Lost in Translation" and "The Girl With the Pearl Earring," the graceful star has already been involved with projects that earned six Oscar nominations this year. In typical fashion, Johansson brings an ethereal edginess to her role. (If "The Perfect Score" seems to be a somewhat lightweight career choice for the nearly A-list actress, it's because it was filmed almost two years ago.)
Also quite convincing is Miles. The athlete was actually drafted out of high school by the L.A. Clippers and is now starting to make a name for himself in pro basketball. It's no surprise that he looks authentic in his dunking scenes, but he also brings an unforced humanistic touch to the role. He seems more real BECAUSE he's not a very slick actor.
The film's most problematic character is Roy, who also serves as the narrator of the tale. In comparative terms he fulfills the Jeff Spicoli role from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" - he's a stoner whose crass behavior and sincere cluelessness grant him the lion's share of the good lines. Viewers will either find him hilarious or irritating. That said, he manages to reveal a lot more about himself as the story progresses. By the end of the film, he's definitely less of a caricature than when he started.
In many ways that applies to all six leads in "The Perfect Score," who are as archetypal at first glance as the kids in "The Breakfast Club."
Although the comedy is often flat (wow is a "Matrix" parody ever dated) and the heist scenes won't be accused of rivaling "Ocean's Eleven," these characters do resonate. And it's satisfying how their motivations change throughout the course of the film from a one-dimensional pursuit for cold hard facts to soul-searching moments of enlightenment.
As Roy says when explaining why he doesn't think taking the SAT is all that hard: "These questions all have an answer."