2 minutes into Detention I sat baffled; no idea what I was looking at.
5 minutes in I still didn’t know what I was looking at but I was in love with it.
10 minutes in my brain started to hurt.
20 minutes in I decided the film was genius.
30 minutes in I fell into a trance.
60 minutes in I desperately wanted the film to end, to release me from its manic and unabating exuberance.
89 minutes in the film ended. And I was sad. It had done something to me, and I craved more.
It is now days later and my brain is still reeling from Detention. I’m not entirely sure exactly what this movie is — is it a brilliant masterwork of controlled madness, or a hollow piece of meta confection that replaces substance with filmmaking artifice? I may never decided. But I am confident of two things: 1) This may be the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen that was made by a professional and successful director. And 2) If you view movies as an artform and not simply as an un-challenging avenue of entertainment, then you have to see it. This is definitely my “must see even if you hate it” film of 2012.
Detention begins as parody of meangirl high school movies by way of Ferris Bueller 4th-wall breaking, with an opening scene so aggressively meta and high-concept it’s like getting punched in the face. You may wonder if you could possibly watch a whole movie featuring the obnoxious character introducing us to her world. Then she gets awesomely murdered by a slasher dressed as the slasher from a movie poster on our faux-heroine’s wall, Cinderhella. Then for a while we slip mostly into a frenzied teen comedy, focusing on social outcast Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), who is in love with Clapton Davis (Hunger Games‘ Josh Hutcherson), who is in turn in love with the 90’s obsessed popular girl Ione (Spencer Locke), who is supposed to be dating jock asshole Billy Nolan (Parker Bagley), who grew up with a TV over his hand and who vomits acid and sprouts wings when he has sex and… wait, what? Then Cinderhella comes back. Then some body swapping happens. Then a time traveling bear gets involved. Then prom!
To call Detention “bonkers” is a gross understatement. It is beyond that. And it isn’t just the subject matter and characters that are strange. You read CHUD, you likely see strange movies every week. The madness to Detention is writer-director Joseph Kahn’s method. Kahn was/is an extremely successful music video and commercial director, whose first big break directing features was the much-hated motorcycle movie, Torque. The film was supposed to be a Fast and the Furious rip-off, but Kahn is apparently deranged and couldn’t leave well enough alone. It seems strange to call something like Torque “misunderstood,” but few seemed to understand that the film was meant to be funny. It’s not a great movie, but it is minor gem of 00’s gonzo action cinema. The film’s failure killed Kahn’s film career, so much like that other madman Tarsem did with The Fall, Kahn decided to self-finance his next film and let his imagination fun wild. And I mean wild. Detention has ADHD. It feels like Kahn’s wrote an entire season of a some absurd TV show. Then he crammed it all in one movie. The pace is relentless. It is structurally and perspectively subversive. Style shifts. Genre seems to shift. There are no rules to this world. Anything can happen. And eventually does. Yet the true madness is that none of this seems like satire or commentary on the cinematic form. This isn’t classic surrealism. It isn’t deconstructionist. It is just nuts. This seems to be how Kahn’s brain works. The film is so dense with jokes that it hardly matters if a lot aren’t funny, because you barely have time to laugh at the jokes that are hilarious before more jokes whirl across the screen. It is dizzying, and, as a criticism, can be numbing too. But Detention flows and swerves around our expectations like a Tim and Eric sketch, yet always clinging to the basic framework of the narrative (which is sort of Scream mixed with John Hughes). What is most insane of all is the way certain elements from the first half of the movie actually make more sense as we get into the increasingly crazier and crazier twists of the second half.
The only thing grounding the film and Kahn’s dementia is the cast, who all tackle Kahn and co-writer Mark Palermo’s script with total dedication. I have to wonder if Kahn really sold them all on his vision, or if they just didn’t know how ridiculous this film truly was (though that seems unlikely, once they got to the time traveling bear in the script). Josh Hutcherson and Shanley Caswell, in particular, work so well because you can easily imagine the boringly legit teen dramedy version of Detention they might have starred in. Spencer Locke and Parker Bagley are both funny as their romantic adversaries, but in a way more directly in tune with the film’s cartoonish tone (Bagley gets some great moments, as the nonsensical backstory to his character gets revealed). I loved Walter Perez as a mysterious and seemingly immortal student that our heroes meet when they get assigned the titular detention. And of course I have to mention Dane Cook, who plays Principal Verge. I don’t like Dane Cook’s stand-up, but I actually like him as an actor. He’s a terrible leading man, because he’s unlikable, but when he’s given a supporting role that can capitalize on that unlikablility (used to great effect in the over-looked Mr. Brooks), he can be very effective. He is perfect for Principal Verge, his signature over-enunciation playing right into the character’s bitter squareness. Overall the characters are just like the jokes, we get so many that even though some fall flat, they just get lost in the shuffle of those characters that do work — all as the film speeds onwards.
I love giving “just see it” film recommendations — where I am not even concerning myself with deducing whether someone will think the movie is good or bad, but will just be happy to have witnessed it. That is slightly harder to do in the form of “professional” film criticism, where reasonably I should be discussing the film’s merits and failures and breaking it down by its filmic elements. But Detention transcends (or maybe descends) past any “good” or “bad” criticism. Like I said, I still haven’t worked out how I feel about it, in those terms. But I loved having seen it. That’s the kind of movie Detention is. I’m not even sure I’d describe it as ‘love it or hate it.’ It’s like a bizarre casserole someone made of disparate and unlabeled ingredients, full of unidentifiable aftertastes and unique combinations. I don’t know that I want more meals like Detention, but I’m going to remember and talk about this dinner for quite some time. To steal from my review of my 2011 “must see even if you hate it” film, Love Exposure, this film is a singular experience.