I have to admit that I went in to re-watching With Honors with a feeling that I remember it being a lot better than it actually was. This tends to happen, I guess, when you don’t watch a movie for the better part of twenty years and you only wanted to see it because you had (and still kind of have) a thing for Moira Kelly. It’s honestly not that good. Okay, that makes it sounds worse than it is, but it’s not exactly The Big Chill or anything like that.
Released in April 1994, With Honors is the feature film directorial debut of Alex Kehishian, whose best-known work is one of the best rock documentaries of all time, the 1990 Madonna film Truth or Dare. It managed to gross a little bit more than $20 million at the box office and finished 69th overall for the year, which isn’t exactly flop material but isn’t a box-office success either. But quality of a movie is never really measured in receipts and my original attraction to the travails of Harvard student Montgomery “Monty” Kessler (Brendan Fraser) and his friends was similar to my attraction to the gang from St. Elmo’s Fire–a weird desire to watch people who were slightly older than me so I could possibly see if that’s what my life would be like.
Which sounds completely ridiculous, especially considering I saw this film in November 1994 when it had come out on video and I was seventeen years old at the time. Watching films about people older than in the hopes that you’ll get some sort of weird fantasy fulfillment out of it is something you do when you’re twelve or thirteen, not on the verge of graduating high school; then again, I was a late bloomer. But there is something about the setting of Harvard (even though quite a bit of the movie wasn’t filmed there) and the house that Monty shares with his friends that fills you with a wistful sort of feeling of either wanting to live in the place or wanting to go back to a time when you were a starving student.
But I’m getting ahead of myself and ahead of the plot, because With Honors isn’t St. Elmo’s Fire. Whereas that film is a look at how the relationships between a group of friends becomes incredibly complicated once they graduate from Georgetown and live on their own, With Honors is the story of how Monty meets a bum named Simon Wilder (Joe Pesci), who winds up touching all of them in some way or another and changing Monty’s life for the better. It starts with Monty’s hard drive getting completely fried (and if you’re up for getting really nostalgic, check out the MS-DOS command prompts and clickety-clack of an early 1990s IBM keyboard) and his insisting that he run out right that minute to get copies made even though it’s the middle of the night and it’s snowing. Naturally, he loses the thesis down a window grate and has to have Courtney (Moira Kelly) help him sneak into the library to get it from the boiler room. It’s not there when he arrives and instead has fallen into the hands of Simon, who begins making him all sorts of deals so that Monty can get the pages of his thesis back.
Simon winds up more or less invading Monty’s life and at first their relationship is contentious, but soon enough Simon is not only occupying much of Monty’s time and most of his thoughts but his philosophy as well, especially after his confrontation with Monty’s professor and mentor (who is played by Gore Vidal):
So what we get is one of those “he touched all of us” stories, especially after they discover that Simon is dying from a condition caused by having worked in a shipyard that constantly exposed him to asbestos. By the time that the gang takes a road trip so Simon can see the son he abandoned years before, he’s even won over Jeffrey, the mama’s boy roommate whose fastidiousness contributes to his initial hatred of Pesci’s lovable bum. But he, too, joins in the group hug.
If it sounds like the movie lays it on a little thick, it’s because it does. The characters are pretty much what you’d expect from a movie set at Harvard: the stressed-out students, the crazy artiste (Patrick Dempsey in Everett, who even has his own radio show and acts like Ronnie Miller amped up a few nothces), and the galpal. They live in an off-campus house that you would have killed to live in when you were in college (at least me, anyway, who spent four years in the dorm), and everything about the film says, “Stressed out smart college students finding something out about themselves.” Plus, the main plot isn’t at all subtle and if anything is subtle in With Honors, it’s the obvious romantic tension between Courtney and Monty, who on the surface appear to act like brother and sister but really have strong feelings for one another but are afraid to act on those feelings–that is, until Simon convinces Monty that it’s worth the risk and we get one of the better scenes in the film at a “pajama party”:
Okay, maybe it’s just my aforementioned crush on Moira Kelly that makes me think this is one of the better scenes in the film, but I do love that line, “I’m ending our friendship.” And looking at what I’ve written in the last few paragraphs, it seems like I didn’t like With Honors, but as uneven as it is, I did, although not as much as twenty years ago.
Then again, twenty years ago I was sitting on a couch with the girl I was dating and we ended out making out at the end of the night; when I watched this, I was streaming it on my Kindle and my wife was already asleep. In a way, it was indicative of how 1994 was ending for me personally–I’d gone from secretly renting movies at the video store and watching them alone on Friday night to picking out something that would be a good “Date Night” movie. And the movies themselves began to become more and more intertwined with where and when I was as well as who I was with.