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Dustin Putman

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The Perfect Score (2004)
2 Stars

Directed by Brian Robbins
Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Greenberg, Erika Christensen, Leonardo Nam, Darius Miles, Matthew Lillard, Tyra Ferrell, Fulvio Cecere, Lynda Boyd, Kyle Labine, Vanessa Angel
2004 – 93 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for language, sexual references, and brief drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 31, 2004.

Exactly two years ago to the month, Paramount Pictures and MTV Films released "Orange County," one of the freshest teen comedies in several years. It was genuinely funny, it was smart, and, finally, it was insightful in its portrait of the very real fears teenagers hold concerning their futures. Now, the same studios have joined forces for "The Perfect Score," which has a similar seriocomic tone and deals with the same general subject matter as "Orange County," but with one-third of the wit, depth, laughs, and truth.

When high school senior Kyle (Chris Evans) scores a 1020 on his PSAT, he is discouraged and stressed out. For him, a young man who has dreamt of being an architect since childhood and needs a 1430 to attend school-of-choice Cornell, it is unacceptable. As for best friend Matty (Bryan Greenberg), who wants to go to the University of Maryland to be with his long-distance girlfriend, his goal is crushed when he discovers he wasn't accepted. In a bid to one-up the injustices of the SAT's, a long-followed, generic standardized test that proves very little about one's intelligence, Kyle and Matty plot to break into the Educational Testing Service headquarters and steal the answers.

Aiding in their heist scheme is web-girl rebel Francesca (Scarlett Johansson), whose father owns and runs the building. Francesca doesn't necessarily need any help on her SAT's, but she figures it is as good a way as any to get back at her dad, who mostly ignores her. Soon, three more classmates have joined the brigade: Anna (Erika Christensen), the second-best student in the class who freezes during standardized tests; Desmond (Darius Miles), a talented basketball player without the grades to attend college; and Roy (Leonardo Nam), a pothead and straight-F student who just might be smarter than he lets on.

Directed by Brian Robbins (2001's "Hardball"), "The Perfect Score" features some adequately handled morals and makes a few good points about the bogusness of standardized test-giving. Otherwise, it is so lazily written (in a screenplay by Mark Schwahn, Marc Hyman, and Jon Zack) and cliche-infested that very few scenes come off as plausible or genuine. In the way in which six completely different strangers come together and form a bond, learning valuable life lessons in the process, the movie recalls the 1985 John Hughes classic, "The Breakfast Club," going so far as to mentioning this fact at one point. The key difference was that the characters in "The Breakfast Club" started off as types and gradually became three-dimensional, while the walking heads that make up "The Perfect Score" cast never grow beyond their archetypal roots. They are at the sole mercy of a suffocating screenplay that creakily turns the wheels of its plot instead of letting it evolve naturally.

The good-looking actors are good-looking and not much else—with one exception. As Francesca, a devout nonconformist who resents her rich, uncaring father and all of his money, star-on-the-rise Scarlett Johansson (2003's "Lost in Translation") does everything in her power to give her part a richness and originality, two things that were most certainly not apparent in the script. For a recent double Golden Globe nominee, this may seem like a step down for Johansson, but keep in mind it was made almost two years ago. Francesca is offbeat, acidly funny, and, by far, the most intelligent character in the picture. The lovely Johansson is the reason for this.

The rest of the lead performances are either (a) bland, or (b) horrible. On the bland side, Chris Evans (2001's "Not Another Teen Movie") offers no proof that he has what it takes to be the central character in a feature film, and Erika Christensen (2002's "Swimfan"), who has been excellent in the past, is mostly relegated to standing on the sidelines. On the horrible side is newcomer Darius Miles, a real life NBA player for the Portland Trail Blazers, who is so wooden in his every line delivery and every second on screen as to be downright embarrassing.

For those ultimate viewers of "The Perfect Score," consider the following random things. Although the setting is said to be New Jersey, director Brian Robbins has done such an insufficient technical job that establishing shots are at a bare minimum and no sense of the characters' surroundings are ever crystallized. The teen characters have no cliques, and zero friends; there isn't a single scene where one of them converses with any other classmates outside of their little group. There are no classroom scenes to be found. The heist, which wants to recall something along the lines of 2001's "Ocean's Eleven" or 2003's "The Italian Job," is not clever or creative, and has trouble generating any sort of tension. When the makers realize this, they decide to give the characters some scenes of faux soul-searching that feel like cutting room footage from "The Breakfast Club."

If the first half of "The Perfect Score" is overly silly, and the whole things relies too heavily on ineffective narration and fantasy sequences (the "Matrix" spoof is just plain tired), then the final 30 minutes improve considerably. While certain elements remain mediocre (like Darius Miles' hopeless acting debut), the other characters make a last-minute plea to be taken seriously and develop beyond their single dimension. Scarlett Johansson and Bryan Greenberg (1998's "A Civil Action") share a couple of undeniably charismatic and sweet scenes together, while Erika Christensen's epiphany, while mundane, is satisfyingly conceived. Best of all, there is an unexpectedly touching heart-to-heart talk late in the film between Kyle and his slacker brother (a very good Matthew Lillard) that hits home with the sort of truthfulness so glaringly lacking in the 75 minutes that came before it.

In the fleeting third act, "The Perfect Score" hints at what could have been. Unfortunately, its improvements arrive too little, too late, and everything else drowns in a sea of juvenile comedy and amateurish production values. Thank goodness for the fresh air that is Scarlett Johansson, and thank goodness, too, that she may never have to appear in such a thankless role ever again.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman