** 1/2 (TWO AND ONE-HALF STARS)
The New Guy doesn't have a new idea in its head, but it trods over the old ground with such wit and heart that its lack of originality can be overlooked, if not entirely forgiven.
DJ Qualls, who was born to play the geeky high school outcast (see Road Trip for proof) is Dizzy Harrison, a perennially picked-on member of the lower class at Rocky Creek High School. Sick of being the unwilling foil for every tough guy on campus, Dizzy is determined to change his image. Unfortunately, his early attempts to do so land him in jail.
But wait, that's not such a bad thing. There, he's befriended by tough-guy Luther (a hilarious Eddie Griffin), who takes the kid under his wing. The key to becoming popular, Luther says, is to be feared; it's all about attitude. With the able assistance of all the prison's assorted toughs, he teaches Dizzy to act baaad, to give people a look that strikes fear into their hearts, to bluster and strut and let fellow students know he's not a guy to be messed with.
And whaddya know, it works - especially after Diz (who renames himself Gil Harris - much cooler!) takes the extra step of getting himself kicked out of Rock Creek and sent to nearby East Highland High. Since no one knows him, reinvention will be that much easier.
Once there, things work swimmingly: He takes on the toughest kid in school and wins (amazing what a few well-placed low blows can accomplish!), steals the heart of the prettiest girl on campus (Eliza Dushku, who oozes attitude) and becomes the Big Man On Campus. Of course, he also abandons the uncool friends he once had.
He soon realizes the error of his ways, however, that it's wrong to try to be who you're not (a lesson that's been a movie staple almost as long as celluloid). And, of course, that revelation has a profound effect on himself and those around him.
See? Not a new idea in the bunch. But Qualls is so ingratiating it's impossible not to root for him, and the wit level is surprisingly high. The movie also features enough film references, scenes parodying everything from Braveheart and Patton to The Silence of the Lambs, to keep cinephiles smiling.
Maybe the only thing revelatory about The New Guy is how redemptive a good heart can be to even the most derivative film. Be prepared to smile.
The New Guy
Starring DJ Qualls, Eliza Dushku, Eddie Griffin
Directed by Ed Decter
Released by Columbia Pictures
Rated PG-13 (sexual content, language, crude humor and mild drug references)
Running time 100 minutes