MOVIE REVIEW : A Predictable Portrait of Prep School Prejudice : ‘School Ties’ is a well-meaning drama about anti-Semitism in an upper-crust school in New England in the ‘50s.
In “School Ties,” Brendan Fraser plays David Greene, a ‘50s working-class Jewish kid from Scranton, Pa., who is recruited by a hoity-toity New England prep school to become its star quarterback. The coach (Kevin Tighe) and headmaster (Peter Donat) are aware that he’s Jewish but look the other way; they want their team to win. David quickly becomes Big Man on Campus but at a personal price--to avoid almost certain ostracism, he doesn’t reveal his religion or his background to his buddies.
Well-meaning and earnest, “School Ties” (citywide) moves through its measured paces with dogged predictability. The hermetically sealed prep school, with its Ivy League-bound WASP scions, is a veritable laboratory of prejudice. The students toss off anti-Semitic remarks with a blithe viciousness; their hate is meant to seem programmatic, something handed down from generation to generation. We’re cued at every moment to register how injustice eats away at David’s blurred self-image.
David begins the movie fighting a bully in Scranton over an anti-Jewish slur. It’s a misleading opening that leads us to believe he’ll stand up for himself at St. Matthews. But he wants to go to Harvard and he wants to be accepted. Stowing his Jewish star neck chain in a Band-Aid box, he wins over just about everybody in sight, including a twinklingly cute student (Amy Locane) from a nearby girls’ prep school. Then the truth surfaces, and, for his former admirers, it’s as if David had suddenly sprouted horns.
The portrait of prejudice in “School Ties” (rated PG-13 for language) is schematic in the manner of films like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” The implication seems to be that we might not care as much about David’s dilemma if he weren’t such an all-around super-duper great guy. This is right in line with Hollywood’s usual approach to racial and religious prejudice: The victims of intolerance are invariably portrayed as a superior breed. In a way, there’s a kind of reverse discrimination at work in “School Ties.” Is David’s Jewishness, which is soft-pedaled anyway, only acceptable if he is portrayed as being better than anyone else?
This superman approach to character doesn’t jibe with David’s crisis of conscience. His smothering of his Jewish identity may make dramatic sense, but, the way it’s enacted, it doesn’t make much psychological sense. As Fraser plays him, David has such a robust sense of identity that his covertness isn’t really believable. We keep hoping the film will turn into a movie about a kid who declared his Jewishness and fought the consequences.
But we’re made to believe that the cloistered preppy ‘50s atmosphere of this film precludes such activism. (A film about contemporary anti-Semitism might have been more risky to make, and more interesting.) We’re waist deep in “Dead Poets Society” waters here. The school jackets and ties, the plush manicured lawns and hallowed halls summon up a repressive pastoralism. It’s a world buffed with the emollients of old money. If we could see how this world attracted David in spite of himself, “School Ties” might have been more complicated and troubling. But David isn’t really tempted to “pass” in this world; he doesn’t hanker for forbidden fruit, it just drops in his lap.
There are a few compensations. Director Robert Mandel provides his usual graceful pictorialism. He’s a superb craftsman hemmed in by an overly diagrammatic scenario (by Dick Wolf and Darryl Ponicsan). His work with a few of the actors, such as Andrew Lowry as a preppy crackup and Matt Damon as the boy who blows the whistle on David, is sensitive. Brendan Fraser is one of the few actors of his generation with a heroic presence, even though that presence is employed here for a dubious larger-than-life effect. A movie about anti-Semitism is, almost by definition, “daring,” but how much more daring “School Ties” would have been had David Greene not been larger-than-life but life-size.
Brendan Fraser: David Greene
Andrew Lowery: McGivern
Amy Locane: Sally Wheeler
Matt Damon: Charlie Dillon
A Paramount Pictures presentation. Director Robert Mandel. Producers Stanley R. Jaffe and Sherry Lansing. Executive producer Danton Rissner. Screenplay by Dick Wolf and Danton Rissner. Cinematographer Freddie Francis. Editor Jerry Greenberg and Jacqueline Cambas. Costumes Ann Roth. Music Maurice Jarre. Production design Jeannine Claudia Oppewall. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG (language).