The time has come for a moratorium on high school comedies. Done to death in the heyday of John Hughes knock-offs and poorly resurrected many times since then, the angst-riddled coming-of-age genre invites replication rather than ingenuity, and rarely yields an enjoyable product. Case in point: “Beware the Gonzo,” first-time director Bryan Goluboff’s movie about moody senior Eddie “Gonzo” Gilman (Ezra Miller), whose muckraking journalistic ambitions get shot down by the school paper’s self-interested editor (Jesse McCartney), leading Gonzo to launch his own underground paper exposing the hypocrisies floating around the locker hall.
Joined by a crew of fellow teenage outcasts, Gonzo launches on a heroic revolution against the old guard that even helps him get noticed by the admissions board at Columbia. Thing go awry as Gonzo learns a thing or two about the dangers of truth-telling, but the movie never breaks its blandly formulaic and awfully derivative mold.
Precedents for a story like this prove that it can be done right. The “Fraudcast News” episode of “The Simpsons,” where Lisa’s grassroots paper overcomes Mr. Burns’s media tyranny, contains a lot more wit than the scenes where Gonzo resists his principal’s attempt to stymie the indie publication. His free-spirited mentality suggests everything from “Superbad” to “Freaks and Geeks” and Ferris Bueller, but lacks the inspiration of them all. Goluboff fails to provide Gonzo or his peers with any interesting quirks beyond the standard set of social and sexual issues that have already been done to death on “Gossip Girl” and countless antecedents. Bit parts for Amy Sedaris (as Gonzo’s anxious mother) and Judah Friendlander (as a pissy cafeteria employee) provide moments of brief inspiration on the merits of the performers ability to transcend the limitations of the material with pure comic finesse.
Despite the lack of originality, “Beware the Gonzo” is tolerable in parts because it willingly meets the most rudimentary expectations of the genre. Few scenes devolve into disorder, but the mounting drama – as Gonzo’s friends turn against him when success gets to his head – remains uninteresting to a fault, lacking the smarts necessary to justify the conventions.
Opportunities to take the story in a dark or unexpected direction come and go with nearly every scene; only the finale has some semblance of excitement, but the outpouring of violence and anger hurled at Gonzo is set up in the opening minutes and therefore comes as no great surprise. In other words, another missed opportunity.
All this, and yet “Beware the Gonzo” features a pair of well-grounded performances by up-and-comers Miller (currently acting in Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” alongside John C. Reilly and Tilda Swinton) and the sad-eyed Zoe Kravitz as Gonzo’s would-be lover. Perhaps, for these young and promising talents, a project like this serves as a helpful notch in their burgeoning resumes. As a mark on their professional to-do lists, “Beware the Gonzo” gets the job done. But the movie seems more out of touch than the print media at the center of its poorly conceived plot.