- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2002

''Slackers," which hasn't made a herculean effort to coin a fresh and distinctive title, can be summarized fairly as a hit-and-miss sex farce about college students not exactly a distinctive frame of reference.
It is the first feature of director Dewey Nicks, a former commercial photographer and then commercials director. It also was the first screenplay sold by former lawyer David H. Steinberg, whose sense of humor was recruited quickly for "American Pie 2," a less defensible college sex farce that adorned movie screens last summer.
The Nicks-Steinberg collaboration is an odd duck with some screwball appeal. It's complacently moronic much of the time but also cleverly impudent and uproarious with enough frequency to accumulate entertainment value rarely of a delicate or subtle nature, one should add. However, a deadpan slapstick flair keeps surfacing and distracting attention from the ramshackle structure.
Enhancements of this kind begin with an unexplained autumnal shot of neckties hanging from a campus tree, which inexplicably called to mind a famous song phrase, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire "
The movie also boasts a few abrupt, fleeting and happily absurd song interludes. These commence with the theme "magic numbers" and conclude with the sight of Jason Schwartzman as a melancholy piano-bar soloist at a restaurant called Lenny's, meant to be confused with Denny's.
Elaborating character eccentricities proves a sounder scheme than trying to advance a plot. An overcomplicated introductory sequence more or less establishes three cronies named Dave, Sam and Jeff (Devon Sawa, Jason Segel and Michael C. Maronna, respectively) as resident hustlers at Holden University (scenically doubled by the University of Redlands in Southern California). Their specialties are the theft and sale of exams. They're already waxing nostalgic about having to seek other havens and livelihoods after graduation.
Mr. Schwartzman, the juvenile lead in "Rushmore," is cast as Ethan, the nerdy villain of "Slackers." He isn't that far removed from his obsessive "Rushmore" prodigy. It just suits the convenience of this movie to insert a few exaggerations of a facetiously deranged magnitude. Supposedly, Ethan threatens the Three Musketeers of Holden with exposure, disgrace and expulsion. Although his character never becomes a plausible threat of any sort, the filmmakers play along with their flimsy pretext.
The price of Ethan's silence is that Dave must set him up with an angelic coed named Angela (James King, the latest actress intent on sowing confusion with a presumably masculine first name). While playing reluctant Cupid, Dave falls for Angela, and vice versa, making it incumbent on the cool dudes to double-cross the loser.
The conception seems to be fortunate in Mr. Schwartzman, who blossoms as a comic resource while playing the sneaky and prematurely depraved Ethan. He's much more fun here than he was in "Rushmore." He also cushions the malicious tendencies, making Ethan so vainly impervious to setbacks that it's difficult to imagine him being seriously discouraged by the failure to seduce Angela or blackmail Dave and his pals. An evening of feeling sorry for himself at the keyboard could be a pick-me-up for Ethan.
The movie sneaks up on you by indulging gratuitous sight gags or bypassing the plot in favor of preposterous, often lewd, sidetracks. Mr. Nicks' niftiest inspiration may be a reverse-angle composition of several college boys on unicycles. The Holden Unicycle Club, perhaps? Who knows, but they look hilarious pedaling away from the camera in unison.
A couple of ribald brainstorms depend on former sex kittens who consent to be good sports for the younger generation: Leigh Taylor-Young of the 1960s and Mamie Van Doren of the 1950s. Mr. Schwartzman gets to trifle with the latter, who will be 71 next month. The trifling takes the form of applying a sponge bath to her bare and prosthetically gargantuan breasts. This historic convergence of old and new Hollywood seems to climax when Ethan the sex-starved runt presumes to praise Miss Van Doren's "rack." No gentleman would envision such a scene, of course, but when you're confronted with it, laughter is difficult to suppress.
"Slackers" at its most effective attacks your funny bone in outrageous ways, although the level of raunchiness rarely gets higher than it does while Miss Van Doren functions as an astonishing, time-traveling prop.
Some touches are just glancing and witty. For example, the movie underlines Angela's sweetness by revealing that she volunteers not only at a hospital, but also at a soup kitchen. Did yet another charitable gig fail to make the final cut?
A supporting actor named Japhet Coe expresses an ideal tone of case-hardened sarcasm as a teaching assistant monitoring midterms in an early sequence, and the sidekicks played by Mr. Segel and Mr. Maronna acquire tendencies as weirdly self-absorbed and amusing as those permitted Mr. Schwartman.
Despite the unreliability of the show, you feel as if you have drifted into genuinely funny company and that a little patience will be rewarded now and then.
**
TITLE: "Slackers"
RATING: R (Frequent profanity and sexual vulgarity; fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse; facetious allusions to sadomasochism and drug use)
CREDITS: Directed by Dewey Nicks. Written by David H. Steinberg. Cinematography by James Bagdonas. Production design by William Arnold. Costume design by Jennifer Levy. Music supervision by Amanda Scheer-Demme.
RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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