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‘High School’ succeeds in doing for pot what Superbad did for booze

High School

Directed by John Stahlberg

Screenplay by Erik Linthorst and John Stalberg

2010, USA

The words “stoner comedy” give rise to odious associations, making one expect a haphazard, loosely plotted, and unfunny mess – and, in almost all cases, rightfully so. John Stahlberg’s riotous and very funny High School elides such easy dismissal through a combination of inspired casting, tireless comic energy and an irresistibly simple narrative hook.

Valedictorian candidate and all-around overachiever Henry (Matt Bush, best known as the fellow who tirelessly attacked Jesse Eisenberg’s balls in Adventureland) is only days away from securing his academic future when a chance encounter with childhood-friend-turned-stranger and general stoned layabout Travis (Sean Marquette) leads him to smoke pot for the first time in his life. Immediately following this brief indiscretion, his school’s relentlessly ordered principal (a bewigged Michael Chikis) announces that the entire school will be subject to a drug test, and anyone who fails will be expelled. Henry and Travis decide to join forces in an unlikely scheme to get the entire school to fail the test – a scheme that also involves a deeply unhinged local pot magnate (Adrien Brody).

The central “heist” that anchors the film works as a delivery device for some wonderfully manic comic sequences, and remains the driving force for virtually everything about the film that works – it’s only the fringe elements of the film that fall short. The attempts to wring pathos out of Travis and Henry’s lapsed friendship is undercut by the fact that we know next to nothing about either of them beyond the perfunctory nods to their shared history. Worse still is a truly shallow attempt to give Henry a love interest, who literally appears in two scenes, and whose only function seems to be to ensure the audience that Travis and Henry won’t just elope on a romantic drug binge.

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Of course, job number one for any comedy is to generate laughs, and High School is easily one of the year’s funniest films. It boasts not one but two truly inspired comic turns: Chiklis, best known as dirty cop Vic Mackey on FX’s excellent The Shield, pulls a 180 and produces the best evil school principal since Jeffrey Jones in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Brody stuns as the cornrowed, elaborately bearded, and ceaselessly paranoid pot dealer who threatens our heroes at every turn. Both actors, best known for their dramatic work (especially Chiklis, who spent some time as a stand-up comic), turn out to posses expert comic timing and flair, and are invaluable to the film’s success, especially since neither Bush nor Marquette showcase the kind of top-tier potential that Jonah Hill and Michael Cera exhibited in the similar Superbad.

In fact, despite its shortcomings (and a somewhat grating ending montage), High School succeeds in doing for pot what Superbad did for booze, successfully mounting a madcap and expertly paced teen comedy that is relentlessly crowd-pleasing without feeling compromised.

Simon Howell