By KEVIN THOMAS
TIMES STAFF WRITER
December 21, 2001
The way they get there is pretty funny in this raunchy, good-natured comedy from Universal. Written by Dustin Lee Abraham and directed by Jesse Dylan, it features a fine mix of several generations of comic talent plus a terrific soundtrack from its stars. It blends tracks old and new and features cuts from and pairings with other hip-hop artists, which are in turn incorporated into Rockwilder's lively score.
Method Man's Silas is content to make his living as the medicine man of his Staten Island neighborhood with his herbal brews, caring for his elderly father and spending his money on hookers. He pays no attention to his best friend Ivory (Chuck Davis) urging him to try for medical school until Ivory meets with a freaky fatal accident. To honor his friend's memory, Silas plants some seeds with Ivory's cremated remains, which yield a lush plant with outsized buds. He dutifully decides to submit to a college entrance exam as well. Meanwhile, over in New Jersey, Redman's Jamal, after six years of goofing off in junior college, is at last expelled. Jamal's fed-up mother (Anna Maria Horsford, in a gem of a comic turn) points to the pictures of her older son and daughter on her living room wall and reminds him that at least his brother earned a certificate as a trained barber in prison, where he's still doing time, and his sister holds a diploma in weaving hair.
"Six years in junior college was not what I had in mind for you," she says irately. The prospect of being thrown out propels him to the testing center, where he meets Jamal and shares some smokes derived from those "Ivory" buds, only to have the white-suited Ivory emerge from the haze, promising to supply the answers to the exam they have scant hope of passing. (The aura of old Cheech and Chong pothead movies is as strong as a contact high.) Perfect scores zoom the new friends to Harvard, purportedly lacking in multicultural diversity, where Ivory continues to materialize to help out on tests.
Chasing girls and having fun are Silas and Jamal's top priorities, and as broad as this comedy gets, there's a satirical edge in the clash between the duo's brash style and academic pomposity. They immediately run afoul of the dean (Obba Babatunde), a smug figure of propriety. The casting of the actress who plays the dean's wife--Melissa Peterman, as good a sport as Babatunde--is surely intended to bring to mind an image of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, so similar-looking are the two couples. The dean makes it clear that, in his view, Silas and Jamal are disreputable types he intends to send back to the ghetto--that's his word, and he utters it with undisguised disdain.
Meanwhile, Silas is taken with Lauren (Lark Voorhies), with whom he shares a class in botany, while Jamal is bowled over by Jamie (Essence Atkins), the daughter of the vice president (Jeffrey Jones), not of Harvard, but of the United States of America. Silas and Jamal's search for a good time culminates in a wild Halloween dorm party complete with pimps and hookers.
But what's to happen to them when they run out of those special "Ivory" buds? Could it be that they would have to buckle down and study? "How High" is careful to make it perfectly clear that, like students of every possible background, they have what it takes if only they apply themselves.
The Harvard University of this film is so much a fantasy that it matters not at all that UCLA is standing in for it; the difference in architecture and age of the two institutions is so radical that even the color of the bricks of their buildings differs in hue. "How High" is not really about college life, other than its nearly subliminal nudge about the value of higher learning.
Although "How High" begins to run out of inspiration before it's over, it manages to take some jabs at the hypocrisy and condescension of the snobby academic and social ruling classes and, in turn, at whites who feel compelled to assume blacker-than-black attitudes in communicating with African Americans instead of simply being themselves.
There's a spirit of generosity to "How High" that allows many performers to shine beyond its sharp and amiable stars. They range from such veterans as Spalding Gray, Hector Elizondo, Tracey Walter and Fred Willard to younger comedians like Davis (who's so sly it's a good thing that his Ivory returns as a ghost), Chris Elwood, Dennison Samaroo, Al Shearer, T.J. Thyne, Justin Urich, Trieu Tran and, above all, Mike Epps as the endlessly comical pimp Baby Powder and Scruncho as his put-upon assistant, Baby Wipe.
That what is often described euphemistically as an "urban" comedy such as "How High" should turn up amid a clutch of prestigious year-end Oscar contenders is downright subversive--and pleasingly so.
MPAA rating: R, for pervasive drug use and language and for sexual dialogue. Times guidelines: There's precious little sex but a lot of fairly graphic talk about it.
Obba Babatunde...Dean Cain
Mike Epps...Baby Powder
A Universal Pictures presentation of a Jersey Films/Native Pictures production. Director Jesse Dylan. Producers Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Shauna Garr, James Ellis. Executive producers Pamela Abdy, Louis G. Friedman, Jonathan Weisgal. Screenplay Dustin Lee Abraham. Cinematographer Francis Kenny. Editor Larry Bock. Music Rockwilder. Costumes Cindy Evans. Production designer Clark Hunter. Art director Max Biscoe. Set decorator Traci Kirshbaum. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
In general release.
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