The original handbook on political correctness stated it efficiently—”Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” is, I believe, the basic text-but somewhere along the way, that elegant code of decency has been twisted into the obnoxious manifesto known as PC. Where the ancients understood that ethical conduct and goodwill toward fellow persons are one’s individual responsibility, the PC police have gone kerflooie, attempting to impose from without something that must be assumed from within, while alienating those who might benefit most from a bracing smack on the head, ethically speaking, in the process. And speaking of kerflooie, let me now consider With Honors (Warner Bros., PG-13) and PCU (Twentieth Century Fox, PG-13), two forays into the complexities of moral re-education that deal with the subject the Hollywood way: crudely, simplistically, at arm’s length, with all the subtlety of an anti-fur protester wielding a bucket of red paint.
To begin with, the similarities: Both are big-studio takes on the prevailing PC (and anti-PC) zeitgeist. Both are set at universities, where the best and worst of political correctness as we know it were born. Only one, however, was monitored on set by the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society-and, no surprise, that was With Honors, the earnest one set at Harvard and directed by Truth or Dare’s Alek Keshishian, about four students who learn important life lessons when they adopt insufferably wisecracking homeless person Joe Pesci.
PCU, on the other hand, is the goofy one, directed by Hart Bochner and set at fictional Port Chester University. That’s the one that makes fun of the whole PC megillah, dismissing radical feminists, vegetarians, Deadheads, Afrocentrists, gay activists, patrician frat boys, computer wonks, and jocks with the kind of cheerful equal-opportunity offensiveness you might expect from something written by Last Action Hero’s Adam Leff and Zak Penn and starring Jeremy Piven of The Larry Sanders Show and David Spade of Saturday Night Live. PCU is snide and silly, owing far more to Animal House than to a reasoned distaste for the antics of truculent cause-heads. The moral punch line, personified by Piven, is so simple even a disaffected Late Show viewer can get it: Have fun, engage in a modicum of pleasant mischief, drink beer. A few jokes are really funny, a lot of them are so-so funny, and the movie is hip enough to include a big smokin’ chunk of performance by George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. PCU’s best attribute is its confidence in its own anti- intellectualism. Its worst attribute is ditto.
With Honors, on the other hand, displays anti-intellectualism disguised, dishonestly, as depth of feeling. The moral punch line here, learned by Encino Man’s Brendan Fraser and his three roommates, is that doing good deeds in life-specifically, recognizing that even an insufferably wisecracking bum like Joe Pesci is a human being with feelings too-is far more important preparation for adulthood than delivering a senior thesis in time to graduate with honors. Real adults, on the other hand, know that a person can be a bum and still be insufferable and not worth adopting-especially not to make a point about one’s own sensitivity. A movie that can’t recognize this distinction is truly incorrect.
With Honors: D PCU: C+