For a movie about the valedictorian and the burnout getting their entire school high to save their academic careers, it’s surprising that the most engaging characters in High School are actually the adults. Face it, this has always been the “Adrien Brody plays a psychotic drug dealer” movie ever since it premiered at Sundance in 2010; irreverent, unexpected performances from its older, more recognizable stars is likely what finally got it a distributor.
Because of course you want to see a movie where the usually reserved Brody (who won an Oscar for his sobering portrayal of a Holocaust survivor in The Pianist) struts around his pot den shirtless, covered in tattoos, and blasted out of his mind, screaming at potential customers. You get the feeling that he had a lot of fun with the character of Psycho Ed, a child-prodigy-turned-lawyer-turned-drug-dealer: He threatens kids, delivers bleary-eyed monologues to the camera, and trades “What?”s with an equally high bullfrog.
It’s such an utter departure from his usual characters that even if you’re prepared for it, it still shocks you into disbelieving giggles. The same can be said for Michael Chiklis playing Dr. Leslie Gordon, the dean of this drug-addled high school and the reason for the movie’s premise: His paranoid institution of mandatory drug tests is what puts valedictorian Henry’s MIT scholarship in jeopardy.
Yeah, that’s the hard-edged cop from The Shield and The Thing from the Fantastic Four movies. Even though I knew that he played the principal, I found myself constantly scrutinizing the other faculty members, figuring that there must be someone else Chiklis was playing. With a hairpiece made to look obviously fake and his voice pitched up a few octaves into a nasal whine, he’s a caricature of vindictive, hapless ’80s principals from The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Chiklis told ComingSoon.net that he chose this character because “I wasn’t getting too many opportunities to do an outrageous comedy and it was an opportunity for me to sort of disappear into a character and play something really outrageous and absurd and fun.” He added that when the movie screened at Sundance two years ago, “[The audience] watched the whole movie and then the credits came up and I literally heard people go “Oh my God!” and then afterwards people were coming up to me and I was dumbstruck, and that’s fun for an actor.”
As much as I loved Brody as Psycho Ed, the off-the-walls character wasn’t 100% a surprise. We had some warning in 2008, when he won the Oscar and bounded up on stage and dipped Halle Berry into a passionate kiss. It was clear that Brody lets his freak flag fly occasionally, and this movie was an extended version of his Academy Award victory kiss. That’s why Chiklis is actually my personal favorite out of this movie: You just didn’t expect him to be so fucking funny!
It’s a really smart strategy that the High School producers used: Employ several familiar, older actors and have them play uproarious caricatures, in order to compensate for the fact that all of the high school kids are relative unknowns. Star Matt Bush just spent the last two seasons on TBS’ college series Glory Daze, and his partner in crime Sean Marquette is known more for voice work than on-screen stuff. Don’t get me wrong, they both give funny, occasionally raw, performances as misunderstood high school kids, but they’re not the main draw. (By contrast, you have a film like Chris Colfer‘s Struck by Lightning, where he handpicked his high-school cliques by actors who have already perfected those cliches in prior film/TV projects.) Instead, we get to witness these emerging stars’ first real movie debut, as they’re helped along by more seasoned actors.
Proof that the casting agents were trying to troll us comes in the too-brief cameo by Michael Vartan. I literally gasped aloud when I realized that the hunky Agent Vaughn from Alias was in this movie as a dorky calculus teacher—complete with braces and a lisp. When these actors commit to utterly unrecognizable but really fun roles, they go all out.
High School is out today, and it’s so worth it to see these unexpected performances from recognizable stars.