Ah, the 90s!: With Honors (1994)
Director: Alek Keshishian
Cast: Brendan Fraiser, Joe Pesci, Patrick Dempsey, Moira Kelly, Josh Hamilton
After re-watching the 1994 feel-good drama With Honors, I went to Rottentomatoes to see what my fellow critics had to say about it, and was surprised by how many used the word ‘insufferable’ to describe it. I mean sure, it’s corny and predictable, and there was the potential there for it to be a lot better. That doesn’t make it awful though. In fact, in spite of its many flaws, I rather enjoyed the movie.
Brendan Fraiser stars as Monty Kessler, an all-work-and-little-play Harvard student who’s forced to befriend a goofball homeless man named Simon Wilder (Joe Pesci) after Simon inadvertently gets a hold of Monty’s senior thesis. Simon makes him a deal: one page of his thesis per item of food or clothing. Since Simon is found living in the school’s boiler room, Monty first tries to call campus security on him, but when that doesn’t get him his thesis as quick as he hoped, he allows Simon to stay in a broken down van behind his house.
The deal still stands. One page for one act of kindness. Monty is at first grumpy about the proposition, but we know good and well that he’ll soon warm up to Simon and that they’ll both become good friends. Once introduced to Monty’s three roommates, there are many other things we’re able to predict well in advance as well. Jeff (Josh Hamilton) is a genuine pain in the hind quarters who hates Simon, so we know he’ll warm up to Simon eventually. Everett (Patrick Dempsey) is a lovable radio jockey with a pet rooster we just know is going to end up being somebody’s meal. And Courtney (Moira Kelly) is beautiful and has a heart of gold, and of course Monty is in love with her, and of course he’ll reveal his feelings with a passionate kiss.
Occasionally, the movie turns cornball, especially during the final third. There are many scenes that are supposed to tug at the heart strings that come across as desperate and contrived instead. Perhaps the biggest example is when one character reads an obituary at one character’s grave (If you’re wondering whose grave, come on! Take a wild guess!)
So, With Honors is not great drama by any means, and in the hands of lesser actors, it might have actually wound up being insufferable. Yet the cast is so likable and so charming that I found myself involved in the story, in spite of how formulaic it was. The always charismatic Brendan Fraiser and Joe Pesci lead the cast. Their friendship is the heart of the movie, and the movie works because of it. You can believe Fraiser as he goes from grudgingly taking care of Simon for his own self-interests to genuinely caring about the man later on. He may not be the most likable character at first, but Fraiser makes him charming in his own way, so that he’s never annoying or unpleasant either.
Pesci, on the other hand, steals the film. True, his wise cracks hardly ever stop, but they certainly made me laugh. There’s a scene where he’s being interviewed by a lady at the local social security office who asks him if he can produce evidence of his birth (his response is priceless). When the movie requires him to turn in a more serious performance, he’s more than up to the task. His best “serious” moment is when he shows Marty a bag full of rocks that remind of crucial moments from his life. As written, the scene could have been cringe-inducingly hokey, but Pesci makes it seem touching and rather lovely. The other actors are fine, but this is Pesci and Fraiser’s movie, and they carry it beautifully.
So, yes, I liked With Honors, and I’m not really ashamed to admit it either. It’s not great drama by any means, but that doesn’t mean it fails to entertain. Even with its current 17% score on Rottentomatoes, I still don’t feel guilty for liking it. Besides, if other and much better critics can give glowing reviews to terrible movies like Anaconda (which Roger Ebert gave 3.5 stars), The Journey of August King (which James Berardinelli gave a shocking 4 star rating), and The Chronicles of Riddick (which Walter Chaw gave 3.5), then, by golly, I think I’m entitled to like a cornball feel-good movie without guilt, thank you very much!
Okay, maybe I do feel a little guilty.
Rated PG-13 for language and brief sexual content
Final Grade: *** (out of ****)