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The Perfect Score

review by Zach B.

 

 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (For Language, Sexual Content and Some Drug References)

Running Time: 93 minutes

Starring: Erika Christensen, Chris Evans, Bryan Greenberg, Scarlett Johansson, Darius Miles, Leonardo Nam

Written by: Mark Schwahn and Marc Hyman & Jon Zack
Story by: Marc Hyman & Jon Zack

Directed by: Brian Robbins

 

Studio: Paramount

Retail Price: $29.99

Features: Audio Commentary with Director Brian Robbins and Co-Writer Mark Schwahn, Making "The Perfect Score", Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selections (15 Scenes)

Released: June 29th, 2004

 

 

Ah, there's nothing like the dreaded SATs. Every year, millions of teenagers study their brains out for it hoping for a great score. Some teens just hit the prep books, others spend money (okay, their parents spend the money) on prep classes and tutors. Sure you can have a fabulous GPA and some of the weirdest extra-cirricular activities to stand out, but having a good score on the SAT can seal the deal for students aiming to get into the college of their choice (most colleges require it - either that or the ACT). The SATs count for something, but they're probably overrated. Nonetheless, millions of students are pressured that their score can make or break an admission. And as applying to college just gets worse, many probably feel their scores count more than ever (and with that said, the SAT format - and scoring system - is due for a major change in 2005).

Using a concept which is probably the ultimate dream of many college-bound teenagers, "The Perfect Score" follows high schooler Kyle (Chris Evans) who dreams of being an architect, and thinks he can be a great one if he goes to Cornell. But he needs a 1430 on his SATs, and after taking the test he gets... well below that. His friend Matty (Bryan Greenberg) is in a similar dilemma: he wants to go to the University Of Maryland which is where his true love attends (well, ex-true love). But Matty's not a student, and not a test-taker at that. After questioning the ethics briefly, Kyle teams up with Matty to steal the answers to the exam. First up is recruiting Francesca (Scarlett Johansson), who's non-existant father owns the ETS building. As they begin to plot, the trio expands into six people: pothead Roy (Leonardo), basketball star Desmond (Darius Miles) and saledictorian Anna (Erika Christensen) join the group. But as they go through with the major heist (hey, notice how the film's title has a double meaning?), the six discover they have a lot in common and - taking this corny line right off the box now because I love corny lines sometimes - they'll "find the real answers... within themselves."

"The Perfect Score" starts out decent enough - the first half-hour or so isn't too bad: the characters stress about their futures and the dreaded exam, and then get hopeful when they realize they have a shot at stealing the answers. But when it comes to pulling off the big heist the film goes downhill majorly. The film's middle act - which is the heist itself more or less - becomes way too drawn out and ridiculous. It's fine that this movie is simply a fantasy, but it somehow puts itself in a position that this is a realistic scam. The actual practice of breaking into ETS seems rightfully complex - but it's explained so quickly and happens so quickly it doesn't really register. But I guess that doesn't matter - because the real problems begin to form when they come close to the holy grail. Forget about realism - a lot of it is just overstuffed (think nearly everything that possibly can go wrong actually does).

What really hinders "The Perfect Score" though is just how clichéd it is and how underdeveloped the characters are: you can just fill in the bubbles within the movie's first five minutes. You have the somewhat average earnest Caucasian, the underachieving Caucasian, a bright girl with a bad home life, the stereotyped African-American basketball player, the overachiever who is pressured by her parents and then the stoner kid who smokes a ton of pot as an escape from his own sadness. Of course, the group realizes what the audience knows all along: each one of these teens seem so drastically different but are alike in many ways and as a result, become close because of this plan. Also spelled out: each teen is beyond special in his or her own way - even if a GPA and class ranking says otherwise.

But it doesn't end there - of course there is some tension with the group at the beginning, and they're each a bit paranoid about trusting one another. There's also the custom SAT-bashing ("Stupid Ass Test!") and the dreaded "If so-and-so boards a train at..." question used as a metaphor, but the worst offender is probably a needless "Matrix" parody (didn't movies stop doing those about three or four years ago?). However, I will forgive that because there are references to the video game classic "Street Fighter II." But anyway, it seems each character has their own little insecurity, and they deal in their own ways to combat it. As expected, each character is one note: they all have one major problem, and that seems to define their personalities. I was pretty disappointed though during moments when it seems like the movie is pushing the characters forward - those moments just end abruptly, and they're never really brought back to speed again. I was expecting to learn more history of the characters during the scenes when it seems like they're really bonding, but there are barely any peaceful moments between the group. Perhaps more personal bonding would have made the narrative stronger.

And what would a teen movie be without romance? There are two romantic subplots - one works and the other doesn't. The first - between Francesca and Matty - isn't anything original, but it succeeds because it's developed enough and the needs and feelings of the characters are made clear. The other romance - between Anna and Kyle - is pretty pointless. It doesn't really move the characters forward, let alone the story. Kyle lets Anna in because it's clear he has a crush on her, and then she's in and then... the sparks just come together without any real thought or explanation. Perhaps if a more concrete relationship was developed between them, it'd be easier to swallow - but I wouldn't see the purpose in it anyway.

There also isn't much of an ending to the film either. In fact, it's pretty anti-climatic (warning: spoilers ahead). After all the work in getting the answers, each of the six teens decide not to use them. They don't directly steal the answers... but they have access to the test and end up breaking it up to work it out. Even if their feelings are noble and they have gained a new found confidence, something is still clear: there still is some cheating. Kyle has looked over the answers (though it seems not intensely), and for each section the three groups of two did do - they may not have memorized their work, but the questions and their answers are still fresh in their mind and that must certainly have helped them. This ending is supposed to add up, but it doesn't quite make sense. Sure they all learn something, and sure the teens get their happy endings, but the film is ridiculous in the first place. Besides - there are different versions of the SAT test (just so people can't cheat, especially with time zones) and questions get mixed up anyway.

Acting wise, this is a strong cast and if anything, they help make the movie better - there is some chemistry between them all. Erika Christensen is quite good as the uptight Anna who has dreams of attending Brown, and who lets loose a little - it's just too bad there isn't more for the movie to do. Chris Evans brings a nice earnestness and modesty as Kyle, who is arguably the most realistic or delusional of the bunch. Bryan Greenberg as his cohort Matty also brings good acting along, and gets to show off some slight dramatic punches. NBA player Darius Miles isn't bad either as Desmond. I don't see Miles receiving any acting trophies in the future, but he's not terrible and I liked him in the movie - his performance here is better than say Shaq in "Blue Chips."

Current standout girl Scarlett Johansson is definitely one of the film's bright spots. Her role as Francesca can't really compare to her work in "Lost In Translation" or "Ghost World," but this movie does show Johansson's range - she's wonderfully quiet and subdued here, which works well for the character. It'd probably be easy for another actress to interpret it as over-the-top angst, but Francesca is a damaged soul to an extent because of her father, and Johansson rightfully keeps it on level. However, I will say that Leonardo Nam as the stoner Roy definitely steals the show and provides the movie with its only laughs. Nam is likable, and his off-tilted voice and craziness definitely works here - hopefully I'll see more of him, and the rest of this cast (Johansson and Christensen not withstanding since they are established actresses) in the future.

I must give the film credit though - underneath the clunkiness, it does have truth and something for teens to take to heart. While the film doesn't go heavily into the politics of the SAT, the film points out there is a slant in the test - in who develops it and who does well on it (this is a subject I could personally go on about, but I won't bore you with it). More importantly though, there is something to realize in all of this: a dumb three-hour test may seem like it can standardize you and determine your future, but it can't unless you let it. Some teens may disagree with that, but let's face it: doing bad on the SATs won't kill you and won't lead to a cycle that results in a terrible life. Besides, you can do well on the SATs and a college still may not take you. College is just four years of your life, and when it's all said and done, that isn't a huge amount of time.

Sad to say, "The Perfect Score" probably could have really been something good. The idea is there, but a lot of the execution is off. I'm sure there will be some teens who relate to parts of the movie, but when it's over, they'll convince themselves that it's just a fantasy, and not all trying-to-get-into-college stories end happily. The film bolsters a few strengths, but it's ultimately quite forgettable. For a much better satire on college admissions, check out Paramount's fabulous teen comedy from two years ago - that being Orange County.

 

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen (a full screen version is available separately), "The Perfect Score" features a very good transfer. It does look a bit soft overall and has some noise now and then, and the print used for the transfer does feature some blemishes, dirt pieces and specks. Other than that, everything else shines. Fleshtones are flawless, color saturation is formed well and stands out while detail and black levels are phenomenal. The film also looks great in the darkly-lit scenes (AKA mainly the entire heist) - those scenes look clear, are easy to see and don't suffer from any graininess or problems.

 

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 doesn't break new barriers when it comes to the genre of teen comedy, but you can't fault it for getting the job done really well. Dialogue is firmly in place and very clear, and the music does add a huge amount of energy overall. John Murphy's mediocre score is placed very well through the speakers, while the other teen-alt-pop-whatever songs sound pretty nifty too. The surround effects also excel - the basketball game crowd, the physical breaking into the ETS, slight mishaps outside the ETS headquarters and - dare I say it - that pointless "Matrix" parody. Fidelity is pretty high and the subwoofer use isn't bad either making this a very welcoming a track. A French 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is also on the disc, plus an English Dolby Surround one. Also included are English subtitles and English closed captioning.

 

This film was a dud when it was released domestically in January 2004, but Paramount has given it a few features nonetheless. The main supplement is the Audio Commentary with Director Brian Robbins and Co-Writer Mark Schwahn. This is actually a good commentary, and I enjoyed it a bit more than the film itself. The two seem to get along rather well, and while there are a few dead gaps now and then, their comments are interesting. Schwahn talks about what he brought to the story and Robbins does get a bit technical at times, even comparing the film to a play and how his challenge was to make the film interesting on a visual level. There are also some fun comments, but the two touch on the abilities of the actors they cast and the overall arc of the story (which in a sense, they take pretty seriously). This is a solid, well-rounded track that's worth a listen if you're a fan of the film.

Also on this release is Making "The Perfect Score" - a featurette lasting around twenty-two minutes (hmm, the perfect timing for a program without commercials!). Featuring a ton of on-the-set footage and a variety of stills, the featurette focuses on the film's production and what the film is about. The actors talk about their roles and the plot, Robbins talks about his inspiration from John Hughes films and his love for the project and co-writer Schwahn... really takes his work seriously. His goal was to write a movie that could be someone's favorite movie and not to please a certain demographic but let's face it... this is a teen flick. I don't know how many adults out there really cared for a comedy starring teenagers and focusing on an exam a lot of them took years and years ago. Anyway, this whole thing is a bit fluffy but it's even and covers what you'd expect them to cover. I appreciated the focus on the actors and their characters, as well as some more of the underlying parts to the production and film itself. It's not totally in-depth, but it's worth a look.

Rounding it out is the film's Theatrical Trailer in non-anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 (and it's one of those trailers that has footage not featured in the final film) plus some previews for other Paramount titles. I must say I was pretty surprised that the film's promotional spots weren't included. I saw a few of these in-character spots on MTV around the film's release, and Paramount usually sticks them on the DVD. So who knows what gives.

 

Far from being the "perfect" teen comedy (sorry, I couldn't resist), "The Perfect Score" has some genuine elements to it but overall it's probably not worth your time. But if you still want to go out and see it, this makes a decent rental: good transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital mix and some decent if slim extras. And if you're a fan of the movie, then this purchase is more than acceptable.