Director Marcos Siega is in the curious position of simultaneously releasing two comedies set in rich Southern California high schools that couldn't be more dissimilar in tone. The pitch-black satire Pretty Persuasion surveys the moral and spiritual corruption of high-school life with uncompromising, acidic bitterness. Meanwhile, the featherweight Nick Cannon vehicle Underclassman feels like it jumped from pitch stage ("It's 21 Jump Street meets Beverly Hills Cop, with Nick Cannon! The kids will eat it up!") to theaters without any additional thought being put into it along the way.
An action-comedy exactly like every other, the film casts the glibly appealing Cannon as a sarcastic, streetwise bike cop who spies his big chance at making detective when an enterprising high-school journalist is killed at a posh school. At first, the snobbish rich folks view their handsome new classmate with contempt, but it before long, he earns the friendship of the most popular kid in school and becomes embroiled in a case involving stolen cars and a new designer drug that's described as twice as potent as Ecstasy. (What kind of a lame-ass super-drug is only twice as powerful as a widely used recreational drug? What's next, a movie about a drug that gets users 10 percent higher than regular pot?) Then again, Underclassman delivers its groaning cop-movie clichés with a half-heartedness that seems wholly appropriate given its material, which was written by the master storytellers behind Van Wilder and My Baby's Daddy, and feels like it. Cheech Marin, for example, plays the archetypal role of a tough-but-loving chief who agrees to serve as a father figure to the wild-but-talented son of a damn good cop, but is so put off by Cannon's maverick antics that he eventually has to kick him off the case and off the force. This role tends to be overenthusiastically played by a large, authoritarian black man who spends most of his time yelling at his impudent officers while veins bulge in his neck, but Marin barely musters up the energy to convey mild hints of annoyance and disappointment.
Almost comically unambitious, Underclassman seldom tries to be funny, and never even attempts to be original. Instead, it seems content to go through the motions, as if on some level the filmmakers realized that they were dealing with a story not worth telling, filled with scenes that have been played out countless times before, and populated by cardboard characters not worth caring about. It's tempting to imagine what the scheming protagonist of Pretty Persuasion would think of Underclassman. No doubt she'd kill for a role in it, literally, but otherwise, its low-wattage listlessness would qualify as beneath her contempt. And as anyone who's seen Pretty Persuasion will attest, that contempt's deep, wide, and far-ranging.