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National Lampoon's Senior Trip

Monday September 11, 1995

     "National Lampoon's Senior Trip" opens with an apparent bid to recall the glory days when the National Lampoon moniker meant something besides lame movies that last in theaters a week or two: Shots of a high school yearbook, with an earnestly empty quotation from its principal, play off of memories of the magazine's classic yearbook parody of the '70s.
     And that's about all that recalls those happy times when the name National Lampoon was associated with humor. Immediately thereafter, the first three gags in the movie involve a pratfall, a fat guy belching and stoners smashing up things. Most of the rest of the film's jokes center around those concerns as well.
     "Senior Trip" focuses on a group of high school losers who, under dubious pretenses, are invited to Washington by the President to appear before a Senate hearing on education. The filmmakers don't sweat the issue of characterizations beyond stoner, slut, geek, brown-noser, lesbian, grunger, sullen black dude, smart girl and fat guy, all led by Dags (Jeremy Renner), a ne'er-do-well with a good heart. Principal Moss (Matt Frewer), a fidgety disciplinarian, and new instructor Miss Milford (Valerie Mahaffey) chaperon the expedition, as poorly as one might imagine.
     One might expect all sorts of comic invention as these misfits shame our hallowed nation's capital, but this scarcely occurs to screenwriters Roger Kumble and I. Marlene King, who turn most of the movie into an interminable road trip aboard a bus (piloted by Tommy Chong, so you can imagine where the gags there lie).
     There's a tiresome subplot involving a crazed crossing guard (Kevin McDonald of "Kids in the Hall") pursuing the bus decked out in a "Star Trek" outfit, and a pointless subplot involving a corrupt senator. Neither would have likely survived the editing room had the movie had any energy or wit, but all the filmmakers are interested in is having the kids get drunk and piling up sex-capades. (The teen-agers in this movie make those in "Kids" seem like bright and shining hopes for our country's future.)
     Frewer, perhaps sensing the chance to rise above the general paucity of wit around him, tries hard, infusing Moss with prissily rigid body language and manic desperation as he tries to remain in control but, ultimately, he's simply trying to build laughs out of nothing. Mahaffey manages not to look too embarrassed despite her insultingly stereotypical character, Renner lacks the charisma to serve as a decent anti-hero and the actors portraying the students go through obvious motions or get lost in the shuffle.
     By the time the field trip arrives in D.C., an hour of the film has been frittered away, leaving the kids with only a half-hour to see the sights (actually, only one--J. Edgar Hoover's grave site, where of course the only joke anyone could think up involves the fat guy passing gas), have sex all around and suddenly and inexplicably get serious about the issue of education reform.
     Which means we're even denied the chance to see them make a mockery of the political process. That's another way in which "Senior Trip" differs from the National Lampoon sensibility of old--once upon a time, humor writers could make telling points with cutting satire, not with witless, insincere bromides.

National Lampoon's Senior Trip, 1995. R, for continuous teen-age alcohol and drug abuse, and for crude sexual references. A New Line Cinema presentation of an Alliance production. Director Kelly Makin. Producer Wendy Grean. Executive producers Peter Morgan, Michel Roy, Neil Stearns. Screenplay Roger Kumble, I. Marlene King. Cinematographer Francois Protat. Editor Stephen Lawrence. Costumes Sharon Purdy. Music Steve Bartek. Production design Gregory Keen. Sound Tom Hidderley. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Matt Frewer as Moss. Jeremy Renner as Dags. Fiona Loewi as Lisa. Valerie Mahaffey as Miss Milford.

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