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Nearly all of us have been inspired by a special teacher, someone whose intelligence, sensitivity, and persistence awakened us to new worlds of knowledge and encouraged us to develop talents that might otherwise have remained dormant. (To Mrs. Wylie, who is now prodding recalcitrant pupils to read, think, and write in her celestial classroom, a belated thank you.) Nurturing student/teacher relationships are so privileged that almost every movie made about them, no matter how flawed, connects with audiences. Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Corn Is Green, Blackboard Jungle, Up the Down Staircase, To Sir With Love, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Educating Rita and Stand and Deliver may not be masterpieces, but watching them puts us back in touch with some of the most formative experiences of our lives.
Until suffering through Dangerous Minds, I would have wagered that no movie about stimulating teachers could be a total washout. But it never occurred to me that schlockmeister producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer would ever choose to invade the sanctity of the classroom. The team responsible for Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Flashdance and the “Beverly Hills Cop” pictures—films that lowered the collective IQ of a generation of moviegoers—now attempts to atone for its cinematic sins with an adaptation of teacher/writer LouAnne Johnson’s memoir, My Posse Don’t Do Homework. Although they have chosen a talented director (John N. Smith) and a first-rate actress (Michelle Pfeiffer) to portray Johnson, the brainless banality of their approach capsizes a raft of good intentions. Entrusting these guys with such sensitive material is about as appropriate as hiring Eric Rohmer to direct a Batman sequel, or casting Fred Astaire as Rambo.
Choppy and frequently incoherent, Dangerous Minds trashes a potentially potent story. LouAnne, a recent divorcée whose peculiar, unexplained vita includes a degree in English literature, public relations work, and a stint in the Marine Corps, is hired to participate in a special “school-within-a-school” program at an upper-middle-class public high school. (Her predecessor—Mrs. Gingrich!!—has just resigned on short notice.) On her first day, LouAnne is thrust into a bussed-in, multiracial classroom of “rejects from hell”—poor, angry, alienated, cynical, inner-city teen-agers. Briskly recovering from her initial shock, she sets about the difficult task of bringing order to her class and exposing it to the pleasures of poetry, a subject in which it—like many of us—has little interest.
Ronald Bass’ screenplay is an anthology of clichés. The following pop quiz—close your books and take out a sheet of paper—should validate my point: 1.) LouAnne finally wins over Emilio (Wade Dominguez), the proud, macho class ringleader, when something dreadful happens. What is it? 2.) Callie (Bruklin Harris), a quiet, sensitive girl with an artistic bent, is headed toward graduation and possibly college when she unexpectedly announces that she’s withdrawing from school. Why? 3.) Near the end of the school year, LouAnne informs her now-devoted students that she’s decided not to return for the fall term. Does she alter this decision?
Congratulations, class. Perfect scores all around.
Painfully predictable in its broad outlines, Bass’ screenwriting is bafflingly inscrutable in its details. The opening sequence, juxtaposing grainy black-and-white footage of hood iconography (graffiti, uncollected trash, boomboxes) with color shots of the suburban high school, sets us up to expect some interaction between the bussed-in minority students and white middle-class kids. Surprisingly, that’s the last we see of the suburbanites. Equally puzzling is LouAnne’s discovery that the school is so short of funds that there’s no budget for her to purchase books or even Xerox poems for her class, a shortfall one generally encounters only in inner-city schools. LouAnne’s ploy to make poetry relevant by having her class explicate Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” is weirdly anachronistic for a film with a contemporary setting. The students’ difficulty understanding the lyrics is also perplexing, considering that the classroom (and soundtrack) resounds with rap music that poses far greater interpretive challenges than Dylan’s words. (In her book, Johnson sagely uses rap lyrics in her poetry class, not ’60s folk-rock.)
Very little about this movie makes sense, least of all LouAnne’s character, which defeats the prodigiously gifted Pfeiffer. As written, LouAnne has no existence apart from her labors in the classroom. We’re told next to nothing about her Marine duty and failed marriage, and are offered no insight into what she’s like away from school. (A romantic subplot featuring Andy Garcia was excised after test screenings, which partially explains why she’s so one-dimensional.) Pfeiffer has distinguished herself in roles as disparate as a nightclub singer/hooker (The Fabulous Baker Boys), a turn-of-the-century socialite (The Age of Innocence), a Soviet emissary (The Russia House) and Batman Returns‘ Catwoman. Her uncondescending, lovingly nuanced performance as a Kennedy-worshiping Texas housewife transfigured the otherwise muddled, well-intentioned Love Field. But, as LouAnne, this poised, unstinting actress has nothing to work with and is reduced to coasting on her looks and charm. Her customarily mellifluous voice sounds nasal and shrill and, for the first time in her career, her efforts to sustain an accent falter.
The younger cast members transcend stereotypical roles. Harris, a lovely, intense, soft-spoken actress, is particularly impressive, and Dominguez, in his screen debut, glowers handsomely, though clearly his high-school years are well behind him. But the other adult roles are as impoverished as Pfeiffer’s. George Dzundza, as a fellow teacher and confidant, is required to project little more than a leitmotif smoker’s cough, and Courtney B. Vance’s estimable talent is untapped by his brief scenes as an uptight, rule-book school principal.
One can hardly believe that Canadian director Smith, who distinguished himself with last year’s unsettling child abuse TV movie, The Boys of St. Vincent, can be very satisfied with his American feature debut. The missing Garcia subplot and a number of loose narrative threads suggest that Simpleton and Schlockheimer, with the approval of Disney-owned Hollywood Pictures, have sabotaged his intentions and re-edited his footage to its pres ent disjointed state. But Smith has to share some of the responsibility for the implicit, if inadvertent, racism of the early classroom sequences. The hostile black, brown, and beige faces LouAnne encounters on her first day of teaching are thrust at us in tight, menacing close-ups like alien creatures from horror movies. Only after she’s dispatched the white man’s burden by stuffing their heads with pop poetry are they permitted to assume humanoid aspects. How this “humanizing” will alter the poverty, violence, and hopelessness of their circumstances—or “How the fuck you gonna save me from my life, huh?” as Emilio bluntly inquires—is but one of many crucial questions that this self-congratulatory, feel-good movie is too obtuse to address.