Hey, Teacher! Leave Them Kids Alone!
A dumb movie is one thing, but a dumb movie about the importance of education -- now that's something special. The only thing dangerous about Dangerous Minds is the glibness with which it treats its subject matter. Even the title is a transparent attempt to sex up what is (or should be) a fairly unglamorous tale. Of course the high-gloss treatment is something of a specialty for the film's producers, megahitmakers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Flashdance, Top Gun, Bad Boys). Given their names above the title, it should come as no surprise to find Michelle Pfeiffer cast as a karate-choppin' ex-Marine turned plucky schoolmarm. After all, audiences bought Jennifer Beals as a welder and Martin Lawrence as a cop. Why not Catwoman as a former jarhead? Dangerous Minds amounts to little more than To Sir with Love with a Flashdance makeover.
But the pretentious title and the questionable casting qualify as mere misdemeanors compared with the felonious liberties Dangerous Minds takes with the book upon which it is based -- LouAnne Johnson's memoir, My Posse Don't Do Homework. In real life Johnson used rap lyrics to draw out her predominantly black and Hispanic inner-city charges. Her celluloid counterpart uses -- get this -- Bob Dylan. What were Simpson and Bruckheimer (or screenwriter Ronald Bass and director John N. Smith) thinking? I hate to break it to you, fellas, but the times, they have a-changed. (Wouldn't you love to see the facial expression of some homeboy in Compton or Newark who rushes out to buy a copy of the inevitable soundtrack LP expecting to hear Coolio, Rappin' 4-Tay, or 24-K when he cues it up and gets Dylan croaking "Mr. Tambourine Man" instead?)
The filmmakers also dreamed up a full-blown subplot featuring Andy Garcia as Pfeiffer's on-screen love interest, even though Johnson's book mentioned no such beau. (As Johnson explained to Entertainment Weekly, "If I'd had one [a boyfriend] I wouldn't have been spending evenings with these kids!") Garcia's extraneous character was excised only after preview audiences consistently gave him failing marks. The fact that the filmmakers inserted such an unwelcome narrative thread in the first place ought to tip off potential viewers regarding the cluelessness of the film's creators.
What we're left with is yet another inspirational tale of a committed teacher going out there and making a difference. Where have we seen that one before? The Corn Is Green? The Blackboard Jungle? Up the Down Staircase? Stand and Deliver? Conrack? Lean on Me (teacher, principal, what's the difference)? If this were a multiple-choice exam, the correct answer would be all of the above. Hell, even Lambada played a variation on the theme with its oh-so-believable tale of a white-bread math instructor who gains acceptance from street kids in East L.A. by throwing down on the dance floor. Dangerous Minds's Johnson gets her kids' attention with an impromptu karate lesson, then keeps it with petty bribery that ranges from candy bars to trips to amusement parks -- even dinner dates at fancy restaurants.
Actors love to play educators. Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Edward James Olmos, Robin Williams, Jon Voight, Maggie Smith, and Morgan Freeman all earned high marks from critics for their deskside manner. Teachers may not make much money in the real world (even before dishing out the payola), but Hollywood actors playing teachers have cashed plenty of paychecks. But what is the secret of teaching's enduring Tinseltown appeal? Why do so many actors jump at the chance to play classroom commando? Loath though I am to cast my lot with the Gingriches and the Limbaughs of the world, I suspect the answer is that teachers make the perfect vessels for conveying liberal dogma. Teach those dark-skinned kids to read and maybe they'll spend more time in libraries and less on the streets (or in movie theaters!?). Dangerous Minds embraces the ultimate bleeding-heart dilemma -- trapped between an unfeeling, inflexible bureaucracy (popularly referred to as "the establishment" back in the Sixties) and a room full of hostile kids who need to be tough-loved into the realization that not all white folks are bad.
"There are no victims in this classroom," Pfeiffer-as-Johnson self-righteously intones. "You have a choice." Noble sentiment, perhaps, but the film itself undercuts its own advice. When Pfeiffer-Johnson finds out that Callie, her most promising pupil, will be transferring out of regular school and into a modified home-ec program because she has gotten pregnant, lily-white LouAnne braves a trip to the projects in an effort to persuade the black girl to stay in school. But LouAnne, champion of choice, never suggests that Callie consider the A-word -- even after revealing that she, LouAnne, once had been pregnant, too, and had opted for an abortion. Why would a movie that prattles on about choice contrive a loaded setup that practically begs the issue and then back down from it?
The explanation is simple: This is a Simpson-Bruckheimer production. Flash before substance at all costs. Dangerous Minds lacks the courage of its own convictions. In yet another cop-out, the film blithely lays the blame for the murder of one of Johnson's troubled students on an uncaring school administrator's obsession with protocol. If the administrator hadn't turned the kid away for failing to knock on his office door before entering, the kid wouldn't have had to go outside and face the crack dealer who blows him away. What is the movie saying here? There are no victims in LouAnne Johnson's classroom, but the principal's office is another story? What choice did that kid have?
This is cynical filmmaking at its worst. But you have an opportunity to beat Simpson and Bruckheimer at their own game. Exercise your choice not to patronize this half-baked, hypocritical excuse for a movie. The only victims are in the audience.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.