Mediocre: The Paper Chase
Directed by James Bridges
Written by John Jay Osborn Jr., James Bridges
Produced by Rodrick Paul, Robert C. Thompson, Philip L. Parslow
Starring Timothy Bottoms, Lindsay Wagner, Graham Beckel, John Houseman, James Naughton, Regina Baff, Craig Richard Nelson, Edward Herrmann, Robert Lydiard
An indiscreet misbalance of lucubration, obsession with his mordant, maieutic, magisterial professor (Houseman) of contract law, and a chance romance with that instructor's daughter (Wagner) prepossesses a jejune student (Bottoms) of Minnesotan provenance during his first year at Harvard. His absurd ascription of familiarity to the patronizing, preeminent preceptor and inability to prosecute his student career with due diligence or recess privately corresponds to this overrated flick's faults: for an academic drama, it's too cute, too gushingly personal, and finally too footling to succeed on its own reputed terms. After befriending a well-heeled genius (Beckel), his inclusion in a sextet dedicated to joint study introduces Bottoms' freshman to classmates of unflappably assured (Herrmann), prickish (Nelson), tautly uptight (Lydiard) and desperately unfit (Naughton) tempers, and a reciprocal obligation for all in their attritionally tapering corps to pen and exchange summations of their favored courses. Most of these matriculants satisfy, and Houseman does his reputation justice in the role that recommenced the septuagenarian's onscreen career, but Bottoms (miscast after an exceptional early turn in The Last Picture Show) plays poorly an extrovert by overacting in a part that demands an individually felicitous eccentricity. In contradistinction to compelling scenes where Houseman's teacher drills his students via Socratic debate on the rudiments of contractual jurisprudence, the second act buckles under the accretionary, sequential weight of melodramatic misfortunes, after which the third descends into gross idiocy as Bottoms' and Beckel's buddies check into a hotel to cram for exams and annoying antics ensue, underlined by John Williams' rankling rotation of harpsichord (scholastic slog!) and bursts of distorted guitar (youthful spunk!). Bridges' craft is unobjectionable -- he optimizes shots richly realized by DP Gordon Willis, and his script capably condenses Osborn's novel -- but his pace is oppressively slow and for better and worse, his leads seem left to their own devices. This is at most a marginal matter for Houseman, whose flawless oratory and peremptory reserve shine unidimensionally, but somebody might've advised Bridges or Bottoms that the latter was either unprepared or unsuited for a persona so challenging.