While films are admired for making fantasy real, some manage a reverse, unwanted kind of alchemy, turning involving reality into meaningless piffle. It is that kind of regrettable transformation that "Dangerous Minds" achieves.
This Michelle Pfeiffer-starring film started with a nonfiction book, "My Posse Don't Do Homework," by LouAnne Johnson, a former Marine lieutenant who left the Corps and signed up to teach English at a high school in Belmont in Northern California. But what happened to Johnson and what the film describes turn out to have the most superficial relationship, and the movie's version of things is by no means the more interesting.
As "Dangerous Minds" relates, those kids were hardly promising students. Bright but unschooled, with few social or academic skills, they were, as one character calls them, "the rejects from hell." When Johnson walks into the classroom for the first time, the loud and unruly bunch alternates between ignoring her, calling her "white bread" and yelling like bleacher bums.
Johnson's problem is several-fold. She has to first get this group's attention, then their respect and then actually teach them something. All without experiencing the nervous breakdowns that foiled those who came before her. "You lose your sense of humor," advises fellow teacher and old pal Hal Griffith (George Dzundza), "and it's over."
Even in this brief synopsis, the appeal of Johnson's story stands out. Unfortunately for the movie-makers, her book was a series of loosely connected vignettes, not a conventional narrative with a plotted arc and a dramatic ending. To make it into a film, a story would have to be constructed around Johnson's character. And unfortunately for filmgoers, the tale screenwriter Ronald Bass came up with, and the way director John N. Smith tells it, is stereotypical, predictable and simplified to the point of meaninglessness.
The first thing Johnson does is assertively trade on her experience with Marine hand-to-hand combat. Then, with promises of trips to amusement parks and the more immediate bribe of free candy bars, she gets her class interested in poetry, starting with Bob Dylan and connecting him to Dylan Thomas. Finally, she begins to make home visits, proving to her charges that she truly cares about their lives.
Though these events sound acceptable when summarized, on screen none of it, with the exception of Pfeiffer's performance, seems even vaguely real. This is especially true of the film's excessively melodramatic climactic events, a bogus tragedy that does not occur in the book and has contrived written all over it.
With kids as unconvincing as troubled toughs as Leo Gorcey and the Bowery Boys were in their day, even the picture's everyday classroom situations can't manage to appear realistic. And Canadian director Smith, whose "The Boys of St. Vincent" was a deserved success at festivals and on cable (legal problems prevent it from getting a domestic theatrical release), has settled for an emotional tone that is distressingly reminiscent of "Welcome Back, Kotter."
Given how few the opportunities are for women to carry a motion picture, and with the chance to be a positive role model thrown into the bargain, it's not surprising to find Pfeiffer starring in "Dangerous Minds," and she is as believable as the film allows her to be. But if this trivialization of involving subject matter is the best a star of her considerable abilities can latch onto, today's actresses have it worse than we've imagined.
* MPAA rating, R for language. Times guidelines: It includes a great deal of hostile and profane banter.
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Michelle Pfeiffer: LouAnne Johnson
George Dzundza: Hal Griffith
Courtney B. Vance: George Grandy
Robin Bartlett: Carla Nichols
A Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer production, in association with Via Rosa productions, released by Hollywood Pictures. Director John N. Smith. Producers Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer. Executive producers Sandra Rabins, Lucas Foster. Screenplay Ronald Bass, based on "My Posse Don't Do Homework" by LouAnne Johnson. Cinematographer Pierre Letarte. Editor Tom Rolf. Costumes Bobbie Read. Music Wendy & Lisa. Production design Donald Graham Burt. Art director Nancy Patton. Set designer Philip Toolin. Set decorator Catherine Mann. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.