DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of The Perfect Score, The Emporer’s Club, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room , Code Breakers

Title:  The Perfect Score

Release Date:  2004

Nationality and Language: USA/Canada; English

Running time: 94 in

MPAA Rating:  PG-13

Distributor and Production Company:  Paramount; Spyglass Entertainment; MTV Pictures

Director; Writer: Brian Robbins (Mark Schwann, Marc Hyman, Jon Zack)

Producer: Roger Birnbaum, Roger Glickman, Brian Robbins, Mike Tollin; Tollin/Robbins

Cast:   Erika Christensen, Scarlet Johansson, Chris Evans, Brian Greenberg, Darius Miles, Leonardo Nam

Technical:

Relevance to doaskdotell site:  copyright, plagiarism

Review:

 

Note: since this movie deals with the topic of academic integrity, here is a special posting on it: http://www.doaskdotell.com/cheat.htm  

 

The Tollin.Robbins team is best known for bringing us TheWB dramas about teenagers and young adults: Smallville and One Tree Hill. So I wondered what would happen in a feature length film of the same “genre.” What they give us here, despite the seriousness of the issue presented, is much lighter-weight, a frank comedy, a bit mechanical indeed.  And why is it Paramount rather than Warner Brothers?

 

But before getting into the film, I want to digress back to the issue. The setup, of course, is a bunch of high school students plan a break-in to the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J. because of the pressure to score well on SAT’s to get into college. The SAT was visited earlier this year in a particularly riveting segment on TheWB’s Everwood (not Tollin/Robbins), where teenage piano prodigy Ephram hopes to skip them if he can get get in to Julliard. Here, the character of the protagonists would, at the outset, inspire less viewer loyalty—but, then again, this is a 95 minute movie, not a whole series.

 

 After “retiring” from information technology at the end of 2001, one of my little jobs was to write multiple choice test questions for a certification test for a well-established company in the testing business. I learned all about how to write distractors, and how to grade questions for level of difficulty. One of the best scenes of the film occurs after the break-in, when they can’t get past all the security to get the answers and have to try to take the test themselves in the middle of the night and write down the answer key. We’re hearing a lot about certification tests these days in information technology. But the SAT attempts a uniform measure of achievement or aptitude for students before they start adult life. There is talk in the script that it is racist, and that it determines one’s station in life. Yet, in the end, the characters will find original and creative ways to make it in life. So just how important are uniform measures of success anyway? We have the dichotomy, between opportunity and professionalism. Academic measurements in my generation with the Vietnam war draft and student deferments could literally affect whether you (as a male) would live. Academic measures were seen as a way that you showed you were “qualified” for a better life. Indeed, this idea generated anger and indignation. Cheating and academic honesty were presented as “cheating yourself,” but they also had a moral dimension, that they could lead to a station in life where one did not deserve to be, and that someone else deserved one’s place, and all this had to be rectified for any idea of merit to be honored. I once (in 1971) applied for a job at ETS after my only other layoff, before going to work for the military!

 

So, then, we have the film. The basic dramatic “problem” does not inspire sympathy (whereas in TheWB dramas the characters’ problems are quite compelling), so interest has to be maintained with motion and directorial technique. The music style that somehow works in Smallville seems a bit trivial here. And, by comparison, breakout series like Smallville and One Tree Hill, for all their popular origins, venture out of the area of achievement, measurement and performance into the meaning of family itself, whatever else. Some of the scenes are good, like the attempted escape through the roof of the building. But here you don’t have enough time to really get to the characters.

 

The problem of academic cheating is explored in a more subtle, dramatic way in The Emperor’s Club (2002, Universal, Beacon, 110 min, PG-13, dir. Michael Hoffman). The “Club” may be society’s bourgeoisie, and the Emperor is Julius Ceasar. The story concerns a bachelor ancient history teacher played by Kevin Kline, who spins his lessons at a private boy’s school St. Benedict. One particularly troublesome student, Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), becomes his pet after Kline meets with his father, a powerful Senator. Gradually Sedgewick improves, and enters a history quiz contest, and places by cheating, and then is caught. Here the film bifurcates into a second part, twenty-five years later when Bell (now JoelGretsch) has made it big and, as a condition for an alumnus domation, asks for a rematch to clear his own “name” but the final unraveling explores the whole idea of integrity and whether the rich and powerful really play by different rules and think that it is OK.  Sandlot baseball plays a diversion in the film, as in a scene where young Sedgewick tempts Kline into hitting one of his southpaw pitches into a visitor’s car. From a screenwriting perspective, the story my seem preachy, as it doesn’t start with an obvious crisis; rather the ethical web and investment in the characters build slowly.

 

Kline uses the story of Julius Caesar, especially as Shakespeare interprets it in his play, as a paradigm of the ethical dilemmas that unfold. I remember reading this in tenth grade English and having a question on the final exam to compare the characters of Brutus and Mark Antony. I even remember the hot June day walking home in Arlington VA from the exam. The script here also uses the Roman toga, which the boys wear in class and in the contest, as a symbol of their emergence from immaturity.

 

The cheating culture is well demonstrated by the film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Magnolia/2929/Hdnet, dir. Alex Gibney, Mark Cuban exec. Producer, based on the book The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, Penguin, 2003, ISBN 1591840082). On Wed. Dec. 12, 2001 I remember lying on my living room couch and watching ABC “Nightline” describe the collapse of Enron. The next morning, my work computer access would be disabled at 9 AM, and at 9:20 I would be discussing my severance agreement with my own employer, an insurance company that had been affected by 9/11, but more by the fall of stock market valuations and Enron had played a large part. Enron had started its rise in 1985, about the time Saudi Arabia increased oil production, survived one scandal in 1987 (about the time of the crash then) with a company called Valhala, then marched on through the 90s adding all kinds of energy trading (energy was to be a commodity) and even broadband capabilities. Enron would even meddle with the California energy crisis in 2001, leading to the recall of Gray Davis and his replacement by Arnold Schwarenegger (no more movies! – at this juncture, the documentary plays the passionate theme song “California!” from “The O.C.” and there is no Seth here to counter the bad actors) Problem was, the profits weren’t real. They cooked the books. They had developed this “mark to market” accounting system with the blessing of auditing firm Arthur Andersen. The cast of characters of course includes Fastow, Skilling, and finally Ken Lay, who finally gets carried away in handcuffs. I recall developing a business ethics multiple choice test as a contractor in early 2003, and the client was using Ken Lay as a counterexample in our discussions. How could this runaway fraud develop, even given extreme capitalism? It seems like many people are not very sensitive to conflict of interest (as I was in my own writing efforts, detailed elsewhere at this site). Here I remember with a bit of chill that my own employer briefed all associates with litigation issues on 9/25/2001, and emphasized destroying emails and papers that one is not legally obliged to keep. Enron, it seems, did a lot of shredding. It is odd that there is no mention of “family values” in this film, even as thousands of former employees lose their retirement savings (the average severance at the bankruptcy on 12/3/2001 was $4500). Will the former employees be blackmarked by their association with a fraudulent company? Failure, after all, is an objective fact even when it is caused by the sins of others. This sounds like a good reason for faith and family. (The filmmakers could have mentioned WorldCom, with the slightly different fraud consisting of marking operating expenditures as capital investments.)

 

The film covers some of the details already well known, such as Enron’s “rank and yank” system with employees, the brutal attitude of some employees in their competitions on the trading floor, and the hypocrisy of their slogan, “Ask Why.”

 

Code Breakers (2005, ESPN, dir. Rod Holcomb, 120 min, sug PG) dramatizes the notorious West Point (United States Military Academy) cheating scandal in 1951 (Truman days, and the Korean War) that netted 83 discharges, including the football coach. The film panders to the stereotype that jocks are academic failures (not true), and the cheating and investigation are all low tech. Physics tests are especially menacing, it seems. One cadet goes to the commandant and helps break the scandal, but enrages his father out of his family “disloyalty.” Most of the resigning cadets went to other colleges; some got into ROTC and some played football still. The players tend to have that squaw-like, crew cut 50s military look, not that becoming. In the opening scene, one character threatens to shave his legs for swimming in the Spring, and then retracts it as a joke. Most of the scandal erupted around Christmas. Scott Glenn, Zachary Ty Bryan, Jeff Roop, Corey Sevier.

 

Related reviews: (with other shows and movies); my essay on meritocracy;

Books: David Callahan’s The Cheating Culture; Currie’s The Road to Whatever

 

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Email me at Jboushka@aol.com