If only Bryan Goluboff’s debut feature, “Beware the Gonzo,” were made in the 1980s. This tale of teen ‘zine rebellion almost has a Savage Steve Holland feel to it, minus almost all of the humor and general absurdity, and I could easily picture John Cusack and Curtis Armstrong in lead roles filled instead by Ezra Miller (who seems more interested in emulating Justin Long and Max Fischer) and Griffin Newman, respectively. Though Newman’s character, “Horny” Rob, is actually more like the Armstrong of “Revenge of the Nerds.” It’s quite the Reagan-era nerds-versus-jocks underdog teen comedy, but the lower tier stuff, not John Hughes. And about rival school newspapers rather than athletic or general popularity contests. It would have been better with William Zabka as the villain, and if not Cusack as the Hunter S. Thompson-worshipping “Gonzo” Gilman, then perhaps Casey Siemaszko or Keith Gordon.
Sure I’m being vainly nostalgic, and yet I should be grateful Goluboff doesn’t actually fill his movie with direct 80s movie references a la “Easy A,” a far more professionally produced (and thanks to Emma Stone, undeservedly winning) high school comedy with the exact same ending. An ending involving a webcam confession/apology, which I guess might not exactly have worked 25 years ago. While I’m comparing, though, I’ll complain that “Gonzo” parents Campbell Scott and Amy Sedaris have nothing on “Easy”‘s Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson. As for other name actors strangely slumming it for this amateurishly helmed feature, James Urbaniak does sort of fit as the school’s principal but Judah Friedlander’s sad cafeteria worker would have made more sense in “Mean Girls,” another recent teen film with some shared moments. Actually, about half of “Gonzo” is like an extended version of the scene from “Mean Girls” when everyone’s secrets are distributed around school.
The film’s plot involves a kid obsessed enough with becoming a journalist that his wall is covered with an “All the President’s Men” poster and Ralph Steadman illustrations of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo (Steadman and Thompson’s “Gonzo fist” also shows up as part of Gillman’s ripped-off brand). He’s pretty old fashioned, though, and so when he’s kicked off the official school paper by jockish editor Gavin (Jesse McCartney), instead of starting a blog or website he rounds up some outcast friends and begins publishing a competing print rag filled with equal parts tabloid and serious investigative content. There is an Internet component, at least, courtesy of the hot girl with a heart of gold (Zoë Kravitz), an eventual love interest who also suffers a bad reputation resulting from gross gossip. He ends up a rebel hero, not unlike Hard Harry of “Pump Up the Volume,” but his nemesis fights back, dirty, obviously.
It’s a very unsophisticated movie but much of the cast grows on you, kind of like how the nerd laugh in “RotN” becomes more tolerable as that movie progresses. Still, for a story of such a defiant youth in revolt, “Gonzo” (the kid and the movie) doesn’t say anything of significance. There’s none of the hard-hitting substance about high school and the teen years as Hard Harry’s pirate radio monologues or Terry Griffith’s Shakespearean undercover experiment in “Just One of the Guys” or any other slight statement-making movie of the genre I can think of. Gonzo’s big story is about how bad the school lunches are, and Goluboff, who also wrote the film, doesn’t dig much deeper than that, either — even while including an instance of gang rape that probably could have been dealt with more imperatively. “Gonzo” ultimately seems to exist in a world outside of both the boldly black satire of “Heathers” (and even its toned down offspring, “Mean Girls”) and the modern reality of the relative bully epidemic. I hardly could buy into its dated and naive mentality.
“Beware the Gonzo” is now available on VOD. It opens theatrically September 9.
Recommended If You Like: “Rushmore”; Savage Steve Holland movies (“Better Off Dead”; “One Crazy Summer”; “How I Got Into College”) minus the humor; “Easy A”