Sunday, October 24, 2010

 

From the Vault: Higher Learning


In big red letters, the word "unlearn" appears at the end of Higher Learning. It's ironic given that a movie whose message in thinking for one's self has spent more than two hours making broad, predictable opinions. Despite its lack of subtlety, writer-director John Singleton's third feature is an ambitious film with engaging performances that still manages to hold the viewer's interest in spite of its shortcomings.

The speechifying, the main drawback to Singleton's Boyz N the Hood, infects this film at an even higher rate as it attempts to portray the disparate elements of college life in the age of political correctness.

Higher Learning builds its American microcosm on campus through three freshmen at Columbus University: Malik (Omar Epps), an up-and-coming track star; Kristen (Kristy Swanson), a naive girl from Orange County; and Remy (Michael Rapaport, a lonely son-of-a-survivalist who falls in with the local hatemongers.

The elements firmly in place for a provocative look at college life, Singleton instead becomes so intent on making each character a symbol that he neglects to make them human beings. Swanson provides sweet, likable charm as Kristen, even when her story gets lost in the film's third act, and Epps does fine as the easily influenced Malik.

The film's best performance belongs to the great Laurence Fishburne, who plays a West Indian professor who believes in the antiquated notion that a person should be judged on his or her merits. Even though Fishburne's character, much like his one in Boyz, serves more as a philosophical platform than a flesh-and-blood person, his character here seems more well-rounded and rises above the messages he has to deliver.

The underwritten script ill-serves Rapaport, presenting Remy as over the top from the get-go and leaving him nowhere to go except over the edge. Similarly, one of his idiot skinhead mentors (Cole Hauser), with his bald pate and mannered style, seems as if he's parodying Brando in Apocalypse Now. It proves an inappropriate laugh-inducer in what should be terrifying scenes.

As a director, Singleton, unfortunately, grows less interesting with each new film. He does best here ratcheting up tensions, even predictable ones. His biggest problem stems from the need to underline every point, preventing him from being a more economical filmmaker. In one early scene, the white Kristen unconsciously grabs her purse tighter while riding in an elevator with Malik. Singleton undermines what could be a memorable scene with a clumsy setup and extended moments that steal it of its power. He compounds the error later, when he makes a point of emphasizing the earlier scene's importance as if the viewer already had forgotten.

Stanley Clarke's intrusive score, which sounds like Bernard Herrmann having a really bad day, smothers much of the film and overemphasizes almost every point. Singleton does score with one well-done vignette following the aftermath of a rape that plays on the audience's hope and expectations about what will happen. It shows a brilliance and promise missing from the rest of the film.


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