This is an early effort of director Doug Liman, who has since hit the big time as director of THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002). The film is extraordinarily whimsical, full of jokes and spoofs, but all set within the context of an absorbing tale of ruthless competition amongst young people trying to get into Johns Hopkins Medical School, and the extent to which human greed and ambition will cause anyone, even students, to do anything to get what they want. The lead character is called Gabriel Higgs. He is very engagingly and charmingly played by Stephen Mailer. He is the son of rich, oppressive parents, and has a father with a Napoleon complex who bullies him relentlessly (terrifyingly played by Len Cariou). Gabriel has been preceded by four generations of men (all portrayed by large and impressive oil portraits on the walls of the family drawing room, in a substantial and richly-furnished house, where the camera makes sure we see the chandelier) who were all distinguished men of medicine. All went to Johns Hopkins, including the father. Gabriel is instructed that he must attend the same famous medical school as his forebears, carrying on 'the family tradition' as the fifth generation. Gabriel is really interested in botany but has been bullied into thinking he must become a medical doctor. He has applied only to Johns Hopkins and nowhere else, since there is no other place as far as his father is concerned. As he sits his entrance exam, Gabriel makes a slip and misses a line in the multiple choice questions, giving the correct answers but in the wrong lines. Then he is ordered to close his exam booklet and put his pencil down just he discovers this, so that he is unable to correct the erroneous entries. The exam process and the dictatorial woman in charge are well parodied, for this film is full of such satire against 'the system', suggesting that Liman has a congenial streak of anarchy in his character, or perhaps the writers Posner and Lewin do. The result of all this is that Gabriel is not admitted to the medical school, but is instead put on a waiting list for admission in case of vacancies, along with five other people. He dare not admit the truth to his parents, or rather when he tries over a glass of celebratory champagne to tell them, they laugh at his quaint joke and he lacks the courage to correct them, as he has never challenged his overbearing father before (who is so controlling that he criticises Gabriel if he is even five minutes late for dinner). This sets in train a series of events involving bribery, corruption, blackmail, and eventually murder. No, Gabriel doesn't try to kill anybody, but another one of the candidates on the waiting list does, and Gabriel is set up as the suspect, since he has been trying to pay them money to drop off the list in his favour. The plot gets very complicated and the story goes way over the top, but it does so in a mode of black humour which works. The comedic effects in this film are largely successful, and that is not easy to pull off in a complex tale of intrigue and murder. Such efforts can often fall flat. The funniest performance in the film is by Dave Chappelle, who plays Gabriel's computer nerd friend, Ron. He suffers from agoraphobia, which is the fear of open spaces, and at one crucial juncture in the story where his help is required outside of the computer room where he spends all his time, the hysterically funny scenes ensue where he says: 'You want me to go OUT?' and his computer nerd friends all look horrified as he edges towards the door and express their hope that he is not going OUT! This joke against the nerds works very well. When Chapelle hams it up by clinging to stair rails and walls with his eyes bulging in apprehension at being OUT, it is all the more effective because Chapelle is a natural born comedian and can get away with it. The girls in this film are all portrayed as ruthless, tough, and vicious, even the one played by Kristy Swanson who in between being horrid to Gabriel also falls in love with him. There are no sweetie-pies here. Boys watch out! Andrew McCarthy excels as a sinister, indeed psychopathic, chess genius who will do anything to 'get in'. And so the film unfolds, successfully combining tense mystery and suspense with satire and comedy. It does not have a contemporary feel to it anymore, because students and audiences have changed so rapidly, and it seems to be aimed at the same type of viewers who loved PAPER CHASE (1973 and 1978-82). It is well worth rescuing, but appears never to have been put onto DVD, being available only in NTSC video format.
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