There are, if I may propose a bit of critical theory, four levels of slapstick. One the first level, you have the films of Woody Allen, wherein the slapstick is broad and physical, and even mildly implausible, but still seems grounded in reality. Allen was clearly sending up notions of broad slapstick. On the second level, you have many recent comedies (think of anything to feature Will Farrell) wherein the action seems to mostly take place in the real world, but a real world that is a little askew, as to make room for the buffoons and weirdoes like, say, Ron Burgundy. On the third level, you have films that clearly don’t take place in any sort of sane world, and none of the humans who occupy this world bare any solid resemblance to actual human beings, but it’s still a vaguely familiar place. Think of something arch like Wet Hot American Summer. Or maybe something that has reality-defying slapstick in it, but still has enough of the real world to carry you along. UHF or Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Maybe the films of Broken Lizard. Then, on level four, you have the gloriously broad weirdness of Monty Python, of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, or The Marx Bros.
Tom Morris’ new comedy General Education seems to be stuck between levels two and three. The film aims to be a sweet and disarming teen comedy, and plays out in a bland sitcom way, but is mercifully peppered with a few bizarre moments of surreal slapstick that keep it afloat. It’s still not a great film by any means, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh. I both chortled and guffawed.
General Education’s main character, Levi (Chris Sheffield) is a typical teenage dolt living in Hell, MI. He plays tennis, and seems to have no other discernible skills. He’s a blandly handsome Aryan youth with a dippy smile and a Tintin-like flip in his hair. His doting father (Larry Miller), incidentally the town’s mayor, is pressuring Levi to go to school on a tennis scholarship, as his forebears did. Levi is complacent, and has never really thought about his own future. It’s not until he’s presented with a failing grade in science class, and faces the possibility of not graduating this year, that he really begin to sober up.
The usual story beats and archetypal characters are all pretty much hit: There’s a pretty love interest (Maiara Walsh), a few dippy friends, a last-ditch effort to prove himself (to paraphrase: “I’ve just got to finish that science project on time!”), and a bland speech wherein Levi stands up to his not-so-tyrannical father. In terms of its structure, General Education is merely average, and sleepwalks through the usual sitcom pressure points. It’s the good-natured performances from the cast, and those few bizarre moments of reality-defying slapstick that keep the film afloat, and provide any pleasures that may be had. Janeane Garofalo, for instance, plays Levi’s put-upon mother, and she’s a wry delight, even when she’s in lesser-known films. A young actor named Skylan Brooks plays Levi’s cohort, and he has some choice lines of dialogue. Example: Brooks is spotted barefoot at school. Levi asks what happened to his shoes. Brooks turns back and, very meaningfully, intones “I outgrew them.” I didn’t get the sense that he couldn’t afford bigger shoes that he had outgrown. I got the sense that he had become mature enough to go barefoot. Today he is a man.
There’s also a scene wherein Levi tries to break into the school to change his grades. His disguise? A raccoon outfit. Why a raccoon outfit? Hm…
Some of the broad jokes don’t work so well. Levi has two dippy friends who entice him to go to Mexico for summer break, and they prepare by dressing in sombreros and fake mustaches. Their plan? Get some Mexican fireworks. ‘Cause they’re better than American fireworks. There’s also a Stifler-like character, who makes rude sexual innuendo, and badgers our hero for no other reason than he’s innocuously evil. I admire actors who have to play roles like this, as they’re often given so little to work with.
So at the end of the day? I’m reduced to using a phrase like “It’s pretty good.” Inoffensive, and has a few sparkling moments of weirdness that I appreciated.