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Movie Review : 'Three O'clock': Comedy With Punch

October 09, 1987|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Teen comedies have become a pretty disreputable genre recently, but "Three O'Clock High" (selected theaters) is a splashingly pleasant little surprise.

The movie juggles all the usual feeble formulas--the lovable nebbish hero, his wisecracking buddy, the bully who threatens him, the teachers who persecute him, the sexpot who lures him, the staunch or dotty girlfriend (here, she's both), the pesky sibling . . . they're all in there: an unabashed, hopped-up teen-movie slumgullion.

But writers Richard Christian Matheson and Thomas Szollosi compose the cliches this time with the effortless ease of ingenious hacks--and they've pasted on a clock-race structure, obviously modeled on "High Noon," that ties the movie together and gives it pace. Even more important, 25-year-old Phil Joannou, a Steven Spielberg discovery from USC who's filmed several "Amazing Stories," does an occasionally smashing job of directing.

The movie is a nightmare comedy about a hapless student, Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko) facing after school extinction at the hands of the newly transferred psychopath named Buddy Revel (Richard Tyson). Revel is the terror of every school he's attended, a leather-jacketed misfit who goes crazy when he's touched. Naturally, Jerry touches him (and in the men's room to boot!) while soliciting an interview for the school paper. And, naturally, Buddy promises to pound him into human halvah at the end of the day in the parking lot.

Gradually, inexorably, as Jerry keeps trying to escape the seemingly inevitable--flee the school yard, get himself into detention, get himself arrested, bribe football players to beat up Buddy--he finds time running out and every possible escape hatch closing up. At the same time, fear drives him on to commit crazier and more reckless acts: burglarizing the school store and sexually assaulting his English teacher. As the film keeps cutting away to advancing doom on the school clocks, Jerry finds himself becoming a psychopath himself--living life on the edge.

The writers have some clever satiric ideas. They also haven't tried to balance vulgarity with sermonizing. They have courage enough to be vulgar and flaunt it.

The members of the cast, mostly working out of controlled frenzy, are uniformly good. Siemaszko, as Jerry, irresistibly reminds us of Richard Dreyfuss as a teen-ager, and Tyson is a superbly menacing psycho. Even better are some of the film's adults, including John P. Ryan as the principal and Philip Baker Hall--who was so brilliant as Nixon in "Secret Honor"--as a sadistic policeman.

Aided by cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who shot "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona" for the Coen brothers, Joannou whips up an amusingly self-conscious, extravagantly heightened style. It is so full of intense camera angles, elaborate tracking shots and excruciatingly stylized acting that Joannou seems to be trying to make this the "Citizen Kane" or "Clockwork Orange" of teen comedies--or, at the very least, their "Road Warrior."

Occasionally Joannou goes too far and the style gets too coercive, especially at the fight scene--which has been badly written and annoyingly resolved as well. And occasionally he succumbs to the worst vice of his mentor Spielberg: overly arch humor. But, in the best parts of "Three O'Clock High" (MPAA-rated: PG-13), Joannou transcends the teen cliches by calculated self-mockery. Exaggerating everything and everyone to the skies, he revives some of our old delight in the sheer mechanics of movie making.

'THREE O'CLOCK HIGH' A Universal Pictures presentation. Producer David E. Vogel. Director Phil Joannou. Executive producers Aaron Spelling, Alan Greisman. Script Richard Christian Matheson, Thomas Szollosi. Camera Barry Sonnenfeld. Editor Joe Ann Fogle. Music Tangerine Dream. Production design William E. Matthews. With Casey Siemaszko, Anne Ryan, Richard Tyson, Stacey Glick, Jonathan Wise, Jeffrey Tambor, Philip Baker Hall, John P. Ryan, Liza Morrow.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children younger than 13).

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