Put the movie's title, "PCU," together with its slogan, "Flunk 'em if they can't take a joke," and you begin to get the picture: So it's sophomoric--it's supposed to be. "PCU" is a comedy about sophomores (and freshmen, juniors and seniors) at an insufferably politically correct liberal arts school ripe for ridicule and rebellion.
Just the sort of campus--like Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.--that, coincidentally, producer Paul Schiff and writers Adam Leff and Zak Penn found a tad oppressive as undergraduates, even if they attended a decade apart and didn't discover the connection until their first story meeting at Schiff's office at 20th Century Fox.
"It's a particularly egocentric way to develop movies," says Schiff ("My Cousin Vinny"), recalling his amusement to discover that Leff and Penn similarly railed against the student body's rigid moral codes in the late '80s as he did in the late '70s.
Schiff had asked to meet with the screenwriters after reading "their first draft of 'Last Action Hero,' " he says, as the writers nod in bemusement on Schiff's couch for an interview. The duo, then 23, became overnight sensations for selling "Last Action Hero" on spec to Columbia in 1991 for $500,000, although it later was rewritten by five other writers--and transformed into one of Hollywood's most lamented bombs in recent history.
"PCU," which opened Friday, is a different story. Not only did Schiff think satirizing how PC police have overtaken college campuses was a great subject for a youth-oriented comedy, he, and the writers, could relate.
"My psychoanalysis class was taught by a Freudian. I remember on the first day, (the professor) said, 'I'm a black lesbian trapped in the body of a white male oppressor.' I thought he was kidding," says Penn, the more talkative of the team. "Then I looked around and the class was filled with all these ardent feminists and they weren't laughing. In the first week, I thought it was hilarious; in the second week, I'd wince and think, this place is frightening."
In "PCU," the feminists call themselves the Womynists and, together with the Causeheads, face off against a suited band of insurgent frat-boy types trying to make a comeback; the Stoners, and most of all, residents of the Pit, a run-down haven for the independently minded that is run by all-American screw-off Droz (Jeremy Piven). The Pit is based on Eclectic House at Wesleyan, founded as a literary society in the 19th Century that by Schiff's era, when he was its president, had become a residence for iconoclasts.
In trying to appease all factions, PCU President Garcia-Thompson (Jessica Walter) tries to close the Pit down, fining its residents. Instead, the Pitsters decide to raise the money by holding an old-fashioned beer bust that must attract a cross-section of the student body to be successful. First, though, everyone has to learn to get along (at least somewhat).
The filmmakers previewed the picture with college crowds around the country, including Wesleyan, where students laughed at much of the slapstick, but there was some hissing.
"This sucks," said one woman as she stormed up the aisle, according to a report in the Hartford Courant. "Thank you," wisecracked Schiff, who was sitting near the exit.
Penn would rather not hear comparisons to "Animal House," but figures it's probably a lost cause. The big difference is generational: the pre-Vietnam era of the early '60s in "Animal House" versus protest-everything '90s of "PCU."
Schiff chimes in: "The thing the movie objects to and the position the movie takes is those positions are so strident and so dogmatic, there's no room for discussion. Once that happens, free expression that should be encouraged and nurtured on campuses becomes very difficult to pull off--and that's where the movie (humor) lives."