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Cheats (May 25/03)

Cheats (formerly known as Cheaters; retitled to avoid confusion with a Jeff Daniels flick of the same name) was due for release in the Spring of 2001. Posters were hung and a trailer was commissioned. But then the film kept getting delayed, until finally, it premiered last year on an American movie channel. It's finally on video, and guess what? There's reason it took so long to see the light of day.

The film follows the adventures of four friends as they attempt to cheat their way through high school. Their leader, the enigmatic and charming Handsome Davis (Trevor Fehrman), has an uncanny ability to weasel himself out of any situation. Davis' best friend is Sammy Green (Elden Henson), a well-meaning nice guy that doesn't necessarily want to spend all his time working on elaborate methods of cheating. Rounding out the group are Jonathan Applebee (Martin Starr), whose skill of writing really small is perfect for crib sheets, and Victor Barone (Matthew Lawrence), the resident hothead.

And that's the primary problem with Cheats: There's absolutely no story here. Writer/director Andrew Gurland, who based his screenplay upon his own experiences in high school, packs the film with quirky characters and a multitude of bizarre situations but never bothers to introduce a plot. So, while it may have been a little interesting watching these guys cheat and cheat (and cheat), it eventually becomes incredibly dull. We don't really learn much about these characters, aside from the superficial. Handsome tells us, via voice-over narration, that he's been cheating since kindergarten - but why? It's a key question that's never answered, even though it's impossible not to wonder why these seemingly intelligent guys wouldn't just study.

But even if you accept the fact that they're just lazy, it still doesn't make up for the fact that the movie isn't about anything. It certainly doesn't help that the lead character is a smug and obnoxious twerp, exacerbated by Fehrman's irritating performance. As played by Fehrman, Handsome becomes a cartoonishly exaggerated version of a real-life figure; everything about the performance is over-the-top and unbelievable. As such, the actor obliterates any possibility of the audience caring about the character - we'd like nothing more than to see the little jerk caught and sent away to boot camp. The other actors don't fare nearly as poorly, with Henson proving yet again that he's an underrated young actor (check out The Mighty for a better example of his abilities). Mary Tyler Moore even pops up as the school's principal, and though her comedic timing is as effective as ever, her appearance is somewhat jarring (she's quite obviously had a lot of surgery done on her face).

Cheats could've been a decent little movie, had Gurland taken a step back and accepted some help on the screenplay. But as it is, it's essentially unwatchable - unlikely to appeal to anyone other than undiscriminating teenagers.

out of

© David Nusair