Their Cheating Hearts
By Mike White
Was there something in the air in the early years of the twenty-first century? Over six years there were at least five films centered on cheating. Has our Protestant work ethic failed us? It seems that hard work and studying have gone out of style.
CHEATS (Andrew Gurland, 2002)
Originally called CHEATERS, CHEATS is the tale of four friends, Handsome (Trevor Fehrman), Sammy (Elden Henson), Victor (Matthew Lawrence), and Applebee (Martin Starr). This quartet of chums comes from various areas of the school’s social strata, feeling highly reminiscent of AMERICAN PIE. Yet, the tough guy isn’t tough enough, the dweeb isn’t very dweeby, and the dumb jock isn’t that dumb, meaning that all four characters are completely interchangeable. It’s the rare film that actually can make you long for Seann William Scott as Stiffler.
As I napped my way through the majority of CHEATS, I realized that I couldn’t tell who was speaking on screen unless it was Principal Stark (Mary Tyler Moore) swearing up a storm. While it’s funny to have the girl who could turn the world on with her smile dropping “the F bomb,” it’s a rather one dimensional joke—appropriate for this throwaway film.
The plot has no clear overarching story, no “big exam looming” or last high school hurdle to overcome. Instead, there are some lame speeches and tedious voiceovers. Teachers and students appear and disappear along the way, leaving the narrative an unfunny and incoherent mess.
SLACKERS (Dewey Nicks, 2002)
Despite the elaborate opening scene wherein we meet our main characters carrying out an elaborate scam to steal copies of midterms, SLACKERS is more of a “scamming film” than a “cheating film.” This tepid comedy has a trio of friends, Dave (Devon Sawa), Sam (Jason Segel), and Jeff (Michael C. Maronna—the kid from the Ameritrade commercials) who have done a terrific job cheating their way through college. They have a month and a half before graduation when their elaborate plans suddenly hit a snag. Our omniscient narrator Dave has breached cheating etiquette and gets caught by psychotic Ethan Dulles (Jason Schwartzman). To keep Ethan quiet, the boys need to get him a date with aloof Angela (Jaime King).
Dave and his cronies have a never-ending supply of restaurant birthday discount cards and successfully scam poon at will. Dave employs a Jedi mind trick he calls “the Seed of Doubt” and while he plays at being cool, he comes off as a watered down VAN WILDER (Walt Becker, 2002). There are some amusing throwaway “fantasy shots” but they really can’t save SLACKERS from being more than just a throwaway little film.
CHEATERS (John Stockwell, 2000)
At Chicago’s inner-city Steinmetz High, downtrodden teacher Dr. Gerard Plecki (Jeff Daniels) is saddled with trying to find a team to the Academic Decathlon. His only ally is the alt.chick Jolie (Jena Malone). They recruit all of kids with high SAT scores and grade point averages. Oddly, all of the kids are Caucasian.
Rather than being a tale of hard work with library-filled montages, the first decathlon scene comes up quick. They manage to take fifth place their first time out of the gate and bellyache about it. They’re on the verge of implosion until one of the kids manages to snag a copy of the next set of tests. Here lies the moral dilemma which consists of a lot of grousing, deluded justification, and massive peer pressure. Once the last bit of morality is beaten out of Plecki’s team, the group goes to town trying to find all of the test’s answers and memorize them. These kids could learn a thing or two from the cast of CHEATS about how to smuggle answers.
The kids rock this second time around, not realizing that maybe they should have aimed for fourth or third place rather than shooting straight to first. They’re so stoked that one of them performs an embarrassing victory rap. “In your face, private school kids!”
The private school kids fight back, though, by questioning the veracity of Steinmetz’s scores. The decathlon’s board decides to strip Steinmetz of their academic title, causing a flurry of media attention. It looks like the kids will be able to fight back by quoting lines from STAND AND DELIVER (Ramon Menendez, 1988) until they’re sold out by disenfranchised former teammate, Irwin (Dov Tiefenbach).
There’s no lightheartedness or humor to this film. We see Dr. Plecki vilified, ruined, and cast out. Meanwhile, the kids are grilled by the board of education like criminals. We’re supposed to have some twinge of sympathy for either Plecki or some of the kids. Plecki tries to pass off the whole experience as an act of “civil disobedience” and that the group was making a statement about privilege and public school. This hollow sentiment comes off as complete bullshit. Rather than having the moral of this tale being that “cheaters never prosper,” the filmmakers try to justify cheating with figures like “80% of high school students admitted to having cheated at school” and by showing that most of the kids have prospered rather than being rejected for being thieving, conniving, plagiarizing miscreants.
THE PERFECT SCORE (Brian Robbins, 2004) Brian Robbins’s remake of the 1997 Irish film HOW TO CHEAT IN THE LEAVING CERTIFICATE is much more as a heist film than a buddy / teen comedy farce. This team-up of six disparate teens openly acknowledges its BREAKFAST CLUB roots. From geek to jock to alternateen (a barely recognizable and utterly cute Scarlett Johansson), the film somewhat confusedly focuses on all American boy Kyle (Chris Evans) while being narrated by stoner Roy (Leonardo Lam).
Our six main characters plan and execute a break-in to steal the answers to the S.A.T. exam. Each has their own unique reason for taking this risk. Not only are we witness to some truly legitimate motivation (no “slacking is fun” crap here) but there’s also a strong critique of standardized testing and “teaching to the test” pedagogy. Definitely one of the more fun and interesting of the “cheating” genre, this is the only one I’d recommend.
SINAV (Omer Faruk Sorak, Turkey, 2006)
Cheating knows no bounds. It breaks through the English-language barrier with Omer Faruk Sorak’s entry into the fray, SINAV. The tale of five friends who conspire to beat “the big exam,” the film opens with an intense nightmare montage and doesn’t slow down from there. Even in the movie’s most heartfelt moments there are few shots that last longer than five seconds. Otherwise the camera jumps around, the image goes from color to black & white and back again, and the film moves with at a pace that could trigger epileptic seizures. Despite this wild montage, at close to two hours SINAV becomes a rather tiresome venture.
Too much of the film is a build-up to any kind of educational larceny. The moral chasm of cheating appears to be more of a crack in the sidewalk to these youths who defiantly charge that they’ll “steal questions from the ones who steal [our] youth.” It doesn’t help that the school has brought in a motivational speaker who now makes money selling exam tutorial classes but is best known for being “Armless Levo,” a student who used an arm cast to sneak study sheets into examinations. And this successful businessman is their role model?
The emotional center of the film is Mert (Ismail Hacioglu), a troubled teen who seems to have left school to get a job but has no problem returning when he wants to fulfill his dying mother’s dream of getting a proper education. While Mert deals with his mother’s cancer and his inability to study, his compatriots all have their own home obstacles to face from the ever-bickering parents of Gazme (RÜya önal) to the parents who want to get their son, Sinan (Yagmur Atacan), an exorcism since he doesn’t test well.
SINAV plays like a Turkish version of THE PERFECT SCORE until it jettisons all heretofore structure of the film’s own logic at the ninety-minute mark. Rather than performing some smaller heists for test keys and being general nuisances to the totalitarian teachers and principal, the kids decide to call in a world class thief, Charlie, who one of their own, Uluc (Volkan Demirok), met as a child. Only having the name, Uluk actually manages to find this thief after sending out 17,000 emails. When he arrives, everyone can’t help but notice how much Charlie (Jean-Claude Van Damme) looks like Jean-Claude Van Damme.
In another brain-crushing twist, it turns out that Jean-Claude Van Damme is friends with Armless Levo and the two of them have cooked up a scheme to give the kids the wrong exam in order to teach them a valuable moral lesson. Ouch! Had the film stuck with the reality of the situation and kept up the potboiler pressure of parents, professors, and peers, SINAV may have worked. As it was, the Van Damme ex Machina became a fatal flaw from which the film could not recover.
Often playing as a crossover between the heist film and teen comedy, the cheating film may have found its genre confusion and roots in the double whammy that was DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS (Alan Cohn, 1998) and DEAD MAN’S CURVE (Dan Rosen, 1998). It seems that 1998 was the year to cash in on the old urban legend that a roommate dead from suicide guaranteed straight As. That said, audiences may want to consider themselves fortunate that the youths of the aforementioned cheating films were only guilty of theft and larceny rather than murder for the perfect grade.