Dead Man on Campus

(Alan Cohn, USA, 1998)


After a jazzy credits sequence which fulsomely introduces the theme of death on campus, this curious little film settles into a rather mundane groove for quite a while. Josh (Tom Everett Scott from That Thing You Do [1996]) begins college life determined to study. He is resistant to the flakey behaviour of roommate Cooper (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) – until sweet Rachel (Poppy Montgomery) gently leads him towards the joys of sex, drugs, drink and non-stop partying.

What’s death got to do with it? Both Josh and Cooper have to hit rock bottom in their grades and face the bleakness of their future prospects before a barfly reveals to them the fail-safe route to academic success: if only they had a roommate who killed himself, they would be guaranteed straight-A marks.

At this point, the film enters rather uncertainly onto the terrain of black comedy. Josh and Cooper systematically search the campus for the boy most likely to commit suicide within a fortnight, with (if necessary) a little psychological prompting. At only a single point in the plot is the dubious morality of this campaign debated or even acknowledged. By the same token, the movie never quite becomes flippant enough to make its sicker jokes work, in the manner of Weekend at Bernie’s (1989).

Director Alan Cohn, an alumnus of television’s King of the Hill, handles these proceedings in a surprisingly flat manner. For a movie under the auspices of MTV Productions, it exhibits none of the flashy, driving technique so beloved of the teen movie genre. Occasional, enlivening moments of outrageousness – a clear nod to the success of There’s Something About Mary (1998) – arrive thanks to a parade of suicidal characters, notably the manic Cliff (Lochlyn Monro, looking and behaving like a young Gary Busey) and conspiracy nut Buckley (Randy Pearlstein).

As teen movies of its era go, this is a long way behind the spirited (and underrated) Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), and in a different universe to the marvellous Rushmore (1998). Alternating clumsily between black comedy, rank vulgarity, pleasant romance and a string of unsubtle pop culture jokes (about Bill Gates, punk music, rednecks …), Dead Man on Campus is an oddity best caught on video.

© Adrian Martin March 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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