|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Monday, 17 May 1999|
‘With Honors’ is a Harvard-set comedy/drama that examines the unlikely bond that grows between political science senior Monty Kessler (Brendan Fraser), a nose-to-the-grindstone type, and the 50ish, homeless Simon Wilder (Joe Pesci). Through an accident, Simon gets hold of the only copy of Monty’s thesis, which he holds for ransom: one page for every favor Monty provides. These include niceties like glazed donuts and clean underwear. Eventually, Simon winds up camped out in front of Monty’s dorm house. Monty’s roommates (Moira Kelly, Patrick Dempsey and Josh Hamilton) react with varying degrees of humor, compassion and outright horror. Monty inevitably picks up a few life lessons from Simon, while the long-alienated Simon rediscovers the value of friendship and trust.
Simon is a bit idealized -- from scene to scene, the filmmakers seem to be unsure whether he’s merely eccentric or actually unbalanced -- but Pesci makes him abrasive enough to dilute incipient treacle. Fraser gives Monty an intensity and heart that provide depth even when the character exhibits formula traits, while Patrick Dempsey has charm as a semi-manic student deejay. Thanks the performers, a fairly articulate script by William Mastrosimone and refreshingly non-melodramatic direction from Alek Keshishian (also known for the Madonna documentary ‘Truth or Dare’), ‘With Honors’ flows along smoothly and entertainingly for the most part. One major annoyance (for this reviewer, at least) is the jokey handling of the mistaken killing of a pet; the incident itself and the owner’s near-total lack of reaction may be sufficient to yank a few viewers out of sympathy with the proceedings.
There’s a lot of philosophizing and discussion of democracy here that add up to a political agenda, but Keshishian’s hand on the reins is light enough to make it a pleasant glance at the sort of ideas that really are bandied around college campuses, rather than an outbreak of preachiness.
The ‘With Honors’ DVD is a no-frills affair, but the transfer is handsome, with rich color tones that show up especially well in Keshishian’s outdoor winter shots. The sound mix is good, playing fair with dialogue, ambient sound and a score that includes the energetic "She Sells Sanctuary," a rather coy and soulless "Forever Young" and the written-for-the-film closer, "I’ll Remember," which gets persuasive treatment from Madonna.
‘With Honors’ isn’t always entirely convincing but (if the dead animal gag doesn’t put you off completely) it is usually funny, occasionally touching and consistently well-made.