Freeheld stumbles over too many hurdles to recommend it. The film’s heart is in the right place, but its focus is not.
Opening theatrically in New York. Available now through Comcast On Demand, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu. See TribecaFilm.com for details.
"Beware the Gonzo" begins with one of those flash-forwarded scenes where something from later in the film is presented to us as a means of foreshadowing. Being out of context, the scene has the tricky role of piquing the viewer's interest while not being a spoiler. It rarely works, and "Beware the Gonzo"'s opening scene is a big spoiler: a beaten up Eddie "Gonzo" Gilman (Ezra Miller) stares into a video camera and tells us that his actions have cost him his best friends, made him lose his girl, gotten him kicked out of school, and almost caused the divorce of his parents (played nicely by Campbell Scott and Amy Sedaris).
This is supposed to be an apology to all those he has wronged, but instead, it's one of those politician mea culpas, a whiny "my bad if you were upset" speech that never forgets to be more about its subject than atoning for his wrongdoings. Out of context, it seemed pathetic, but I was willing to grant that I didn't have the entire speech at my disposal. However, it hung over the movie, and as I met the interesting and trusting characters, dread crept in; I kept waiting for the moment when Gonzo would stop being the likeable character he is for much of the film and turns into this destructive monster.
This is not a bad thing, mind you, but the film's dark turn treats some rather unsavory matters in eye-rollingly shallow fashion to produce a happy ending. It never makes its case for why we, or anybody in "Beware the Gonzo" should Forgive the Gonzo. If the film were honest, this tale of how power corrupts would have had a bittersweet, life-learning lesson of an ending: The hero learns from his mistakes and carries that lament with him as he moves on. Lacking that courage, director-screenwriter Bryan Goluboff should have at least removed the most serious of "Beware the Gonzo"'s sins from the screenplay. The ending would then be easier to swallow. More on that shortly.
Gonzo works for a prep school newspaper run by principal's darling Gavin Reilly (Jesse McCartney). Reilly is a jock who not only edits the newspaper but comes from a long line of school attendees and patrons. Reilly's family has won a prestigious history award for the school two years running, and he is in line to win it its third. Reilly is also a bully (and worse, as we'll discover) who trashes all of Gonzo's article ideas. He and his jocks beat up Gonzo's friend, the wonderfully named Scott Marshall-Schneeman (Edward Gelbinovich), giving him an gate-enhanced atomic wedgie. Scott's predicament leads Gonzo to turn his "first day of school" article into an expose on the bullied kids. Reilly edits out all but two paragraphs of Gonzo's article, forcing him to start his own underground newspaper. The first article is all about Scott and his run-ins with the jocks.
Gonzo looks 17, but like Dakota Fanning, he must actually be 40. His rants about newspapers, lack of desire for Internet based materials, and the "All the President's Men" poster that screams "OH MY GOD! CLICHÉ!!!" as it hangs on his wall do not belong to a teenager. The press materials state Gonzo is Goluboff's stand-in, and when Goluboff was 17, "All the President's Men" was 10. It's 35 now. On Goluboff's wall, yes. On Gonzo's? Not likely.
Goluboff creates his other outcast teens more realistically, especially Evie Wallace (Zoe Kravitz), a web designer who convinces Gonzo to have a web-based component for his newspaper. Like Scott, she is more than just a stock character. She's the love interest, but there's more definition to her. Evie dresses provocatively, but her sexual speed limit is much slower than the rumors suggest. She's also more media-savvy than Gonzo, and more level-headed. Her contribution to Gonzo's vision, besides the website, is a sex advice column. "They want a slut, I'll give them a slut," she tells him.
Rounding out Gonzo's posse are Ming Na (Stephanie Hong), an Asian girl who becomes the paper's Rona Barrett (or TMZ for you young folks out there) and photographer Horny Rob Becker (Griffin Newman), who lives up to his name. Becker is the most interesting character in the film, a geeky looking dweeb who lusts after the girls other teenage boys won't, and they return it to him in spades. "Beware the Gonzo"'s one stroke of genius is to not only make Horny Rob a convincing sexual being, but to give him the kind of sex that requires a French description. Becker's pleasured facial reactions are comically, joyously real.
Our young journalists put out their first Gonzo newspaper, and it's a hit. The school doesn't like it, and the principal is even less enamored when Gonzo's second paper includes an expose on the cafeteria. Judah Friedlander has an amusing cameo as a cafeteria worker who tries to dissuade Gonzo from eating the food-poisoned sloppy joe, and Gonzo's investigation results in the cafeteria being shut down for health code violations. This gets Gonzo on TV, making him drunk with power. This also pisses off Gavin Reilly, whose editorship has been compromised by the Gonzo paper. Gavin's revenge leads to one of those life's-not-fair moments that sets Gonzo down the path that requires the aforementioned apology. In context it is even more pathetic.
Since this is a film about journalism, it's easy to predict that Gonzo's transgression has to do with spilling off-the-record things he learned from friends like Scott. Miller handles this vengeful transition well, but one of the things he tells casts a pallor on the film that makes the happy ending incredulous. I'll tread lightly. A character confides in Gonzo that she has been date raped by one guy, who is cheered on by his buddies before one of them tries to rape her as well. This is all recorded, and, thanks to Gonzo publishing the details of this ordeal, the perpetrators put the video on YouTube. (Mercifully, we see very little of it.) In order to procure his happy ending, Goluboff has the character basically say "thanks to your paper, I learned to live with my rape being put on YouTube." My eyes rolled in my head like a slot machine on crack. Certain words beginning with B and S forcibly exited my mouth. A bad ending can ruin a film, and dismissing something this serious with such nonchalance was an unforgivable sin.
Until the post-climax malarkey, "Beware the Gonzo" was a pleasant diversion. It's a poor man's "Pump Up the Volume," but there are some askew angles on this figure--refreshing moments of dialogue and scenes that turned away from the norm. "Volume," made in 1990, is a darker, better picture with a career-best performance by Christian Slater. Slater's Hard Harry used the radio instead of the newspaper as his gonzo device, and the repercussions of his actions are dealt with more directly. It would make a good double feature with "Beware the Gonzo," though I'd watch "Volume" first if I were you.
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A globetrotting computer programmer by trade and movie lover by hobby, Odie Henderson has contributed to Slant Magazine's The House Next Door since 2006. Additionally, his work has appeared at Movies Without Pity (2008) and numerous other sites. He currently runs the blog Tales of Odienary Madness and is the troublemaker behind the Black History Mumf series at Big Media Vandalism.
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