Picks and Pans Review: With Honors

updated 05/09/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Joe Pesci, Brendan Fraser, Moira Kelly, Patrick Dempsey, Josh Hamilton

If Pesci hadn't worn out his welcome before, he beats it into the ground in this bathetic comedy. Like garlic, Pesci can be tangy and provocative in small doses. But as a lead actor he is unpleasantly overwhelming, like bad garlic soup. He trots out all his scampy-sly acting moves in this role, darting his eyes like crazy and tilting his head in rascally puppy fashion.

In a plot that plays like a mix of ideas Frank Capra and Preston Sturges might have quickly rejected, Pesci is a surly, sadistic homeless man who forages around Harvard University and sleeps in its library basement. When he finds the lost senior thesis of Fraser, who needs the paper to graduate, Pesci uses it to extort food, money and shelter from the boy. Long before the punchless, melodramatic conclusion, screenwriter William Mastrosimone proves he is a better dramatic playwright than a comedy film writer.

Much of his script is gratuitous cheap shots—at Dan Quayle (twice), Yale and even Clarence Thomas. Mastrosimone and Beirut-born director Alek Keshishian also trivialize illness (specifically asbestosis), honor, work and parenthood.

Fraser, with his Joel McCrea-like ability to mix wit and drama, somehow survives Pesci's inability to touch real emotion. Not much help is forthcoming from Dempsey, as one of Fraser's housemates, or Hamilton, who is merely a stereotypical yuppie as Fraser's stuffy roomie. And Kelly, doing a blank-faced, road company-Meg Tilly, never seems convincing as a loose man-eater type who's supposed to inject some sex into the house.

The best reason to see the movie is to see how it makes the strident, sneery novelist Gore Vidal, who plays a professor maligned by Pesci, seem almost warm and likable by comparison. (PG-13)

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