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Back to School: With Honors

With the briefest of temperature dips recently, I started to get excited about Fall. Thinking about “back to school” films reminded me of the 1994 film With Honors.

The film centers around a group of undergraduate friends/roommates attending Harvard during their final year before graduation. In the movie, Patrick Dempsey is an eccentric Harvard student radio host who owns a rooster (you heard me), and whose father, it is alluded to, is very wealthy. He has an amazing head of curly hair in the film. There’s a young and lovely Moira Kelly and an even lovelier young Brendan Fraser. Josh Hamilton is also there (mostly to whine) as the straight-laced and uptight foil to the rest of his roommates. Hamilton is always amazing in whatever he does (please, watch Eighth Grade) and he deserves a lot more than Hollywood ever gave him. There’s also Joe Pesci (but we’ll get to him a little later). I didn’t remember much else about the plot after all these years.

Why did I like this movie so much when it came out?

In 1994 I was 13 years old. Honestly, most of what I remembered about the movie was how much I liked Moira Kelly’s haircut at the time and this song by Madonna made for the film:

Hollywood led me (and most of America, I think) to believe that Harvard epitomized college. When I think about it, this idea was perpetuated a few years later in ‘97 with the release of Good Will Hunting. I imagined Boston, even with all of its snow, to be a magical place to go to school. Brendan Fraser plays Monty, a serious student of government, wearing a suit and tie, ready to meet with his thesis advisor. His character is a bit “young Republican,” but once surrounded by his roommates and friends, he switches into a goofy or more lovable version of himself.

The driving plot point (for Monty at least) is graduating from Harvard “with honors.” Monty is on track to writing an excellent thesis, in line with the beliefs of his favorite professor and thesis advisor. He hopes it will push him to graduate with honors and lead to a successful career and a better life. As often happened in the 90s, his computer crashes and he rushes to make a copy of the only physical paper printout he has of his thesis. While rushing around campus out in the snow, he stumbles, majorly hurting his ankle, and drops the paper copy through a grate that leads to the furnace room of the college library. His friend Courtney (Moira Kelly) helps him sneak into the library where he finds a homeless man (Pesci) living amongst piles of books (think of the episode of The Twilight Zone “Time Enough At Last”), burning pages of Monty’s thesis for warmth. To stop him from burning more pages of his thesis, Monty tries to reason with him. Simon, as Pesci is known in the film, asks for food (a glazed donut) and clean underwear. He says for each thing Monty brings him, he will return one page of his thesis. There were 88 pages; there are only 83 left. Monty ends up calling campus security on the squatter Simon, getting him evicted. The next morning he is left on crutches but with no thesis. They weren’t able to find it among Simon’s belongings. Monty bails Simon out of potential jail time but Simon still has contempt for the kid who got him evicted from his library digs.

The lesson Fraser’s Monty needs to learn in the film is that he has spent his college years as “all work and no play.” He doesn’t know how to enjoy his life. In reality, he doesn't know much about life in general. He thinks he knows how to help others and make changes to his government but his thesis is a lot of pessimism regurgitated from his favorite professor’s beliefs. Then he meets Simon. Simon, now really homeless, is a self-made scholar and lover of reading. He tries to impart some wisdom (judgment) onto Monty after calling him a loser earlier. He says Monty tries too hard. “Winners forget they’re in a race. They just love to run.” He shows Monty a glimpse of his thesis, which he has stashed away, and reopens their previous agreement of an exchange of goods and services for pages of said thesis. Simon kind of spends a lot of the early part of the film just following Monty around campus at all times, offering to carry his books with new vigor at their arrangement, while the pissed-off kid uses crutches in the snow. (Sidebar - using crutches any time sucks, but in the snow? Woof.) Pesci is doing sort of a funny (weird) voice for his character the whole movie, and not Goodfellas funny.

Monty brings Simon to his house and lets him move into the dead van parked outside in their yard. It was abandoned by one of their old roommates who dropped out of Harvard. Realistically, Monty’s roommates initially have mixed feelings about the decision. Monty assures them it will only be for a few days. He will find a way to convince Simon to give him his entire thesis back. His roommate Everett (Dempsey) is too curious to resist visiting Simon. He brings him a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, explaining that most of Harvard’s students believe Simon is the library ghost of the dead author. The two hit it off and they banter a bit about the dead van in the driveway. Everett bargains with Simon to get the van fixed in exchange for some bottles of wine.

That brings me back to the rest of Monty’s housemates: thirteen-year-old me loved Courtney’s (Moira Kelly’s) haircut in this film. Hell, I still love it. Look at it. She IS the 90s. Her character is a bit goofy; she’s “one of the guys” as the only girl roommate and she is a fiercely loyal friend to Monty. She's the dream girl. In the middle of the night, Monty reflects on what Courtney said to him earlier about how cold it is outside and brings Simon a blanket. We can tell Monty is pining for Courtney in the film as she talks to him about getting back together with her ex-boyfriend whom Everett refers to as, “The Face.” Jeff (Josh Hamilton) is superrrr uptight. But his indignance is his armor. When he finally comes clean to Monty, he admits that he has only one page of his thesis done. He’s been lying about it. He is panicked that he will end up dropping out like their other roommate did. I read Roger Ebert’s original 1994 review of the movie and laughed out loud at his description of Monty’s housemates:

Eventually, Monty's roommates get in on the act, including Everett (Patrick Dempsey), who pays Simon nine bottles of wine to repair his van, and Courtney (Moira Kelly), who spends a great deal of energy not being in love with Monty. A third roommate, Jeff (Josh Hamilton), plays the obligatory pain in the ass.

Initially, Monty tries to bring Simon to the Department of Public Welfare and Social Security to get him signed up for disability benefits but Simon is uncooperative. Simon was a Merchant Marine. He spent years working and paying taxes Monty implores him. He is owed his Social Security! The more time the two spend together the softer both become towards each other. Simon starts to tell Monty more stories about his life, and gradually they start to change Monty’s perspective. Monty thinks he wants to help change the world by working with the government. Simon challenges the beliefs Monty has written about in his thesis more than his Harvard thesis advisor does. They definitely have a Good Will Hunting vibe going a few years before Good Will Hunting came out but Pesci, unfortunately, is no Robin Williams. Simon makes a joke about how much Monty studies and asks, “ Didn’t your father ever play ball with you?” Which seems to hit a nerve. Monty gets tightlipped and tries to change the subject. His father left when he was five, remarried, and had kids with his new wife, effectively ghosting his original family.

After they bond a bit, Monty goes out on a limb and takes Simon with him to a lecture by his thesis professor. It’s a little strange how the deal between them becomes sort of 24/7 companionship. If the rest of his campus didn’t see Simon too you could argue that he is a ghost sent to help guide Monty on his journey through life. During the lecture after Monty’s answer is promptly shut down by his professor, Simon challenges the pompous professor, giving with great idealistic purpose, why the constitution is a brilliant thing and he gets applauded by the rest of the students. Outside, Monty finds Simon gasping for breath after his speech but Simon brushes the topic off. Something they have in common.

Monty and uptight Jeff have a spat about whether Simon can stay inside on a night that is supposed to be below zero. Jeff accuses Monty of selfishly using Simon and tells him to just bring him to a shelter. When Simon asks if he can come inside, Monty makes a super lame excuse and spends the whole night worrying about Simon freezing to death in the van. The next morning, however, Simon leaves a note saying the deal is off. He is gone. For some reason, Monty is the only one not leaving for Christmas break. He HAS TO WORK ON HIS THESIS. With his cast finally off his ankle, Monty wanders around looking for Simon to no avail. Someone wrapped in a Harvard blanket turns up on his doorstep with the rest of his thesis but it isn't Simon. He delivers a sort of poetic but cryptic message on Simon’s behalf but tells Monty that Simon does not want to see him. Monty goes looking again and finds Simon in bad shape. He’s coughing and can’t catch his breath. He doesn't want to go to the hospital. He tells Monty he breathed in asbestos while in the merchant marines. His lungs quit and they fired him. Monty gives him a house key and puts him up in their old (now gone) roommate’s room. Simon’s days are numbered. His illness is terminal. Finally reunited with his entire old thesis, Monty throws it out and starts anew.

Jeff is the first one back from winter break and freaks out when he sees Simon inside their house. However, Simon is now a contributing member of the household. He is collecting Social Security and can actually contribute to the cost of rent and groceries. Now with an official place to live, Simon is thrilled and the house seems happier (except for Jeff). Now when Monty sees Simon it puts a smile on his face rather than a scowl. Simon starts spending more time with each member of the house, gradually winning each student over while telling them stories and sharing common bonds. Except for Jeff. Jeff and Simon finally have words. While attempting to make peace by offering him French toast (a valid move in my opinion), Simon says, “You know why you hate me so much Jeffrey? Because I look the way you feel.” Yikes. But the truth shall set them free. They share a bond of depression and self-loathing. And a love of French toast. Peace has been made.

Despite the warmth of a house and regular good meals, Simon starts drafting his own obituary. It turns out he also left his wife and son to join the merchant marines, which greatly upsets Monty. He feels betrayed by this bit of truth about his new father figure. But they still go together to a giant party for Harvard seniors where almost everyone is wearing fancy pajamas. Simon eggs Monty on to tell Courtney how he really feels about her. Monty sees her arguing with her ex-boyfriend (The Face) and she storms outside. Monty goes for it and succeeds. Courtney feels the same way. After finally getting the girl, Monty hears Simon fall in the middle of the night, short of breath. Simon doesn't want to go to the hospital and he doesn’t want to die alone. Simon asks Monty if he lives through the night if he will drive him to see his estranged son just once. Monty agrees. Even though his thesis is due and still unfinished, he and the rest of his housemates take Simon in the van to try to meet his son. After meeting his adult son goes beyond badly, Simon asks them to pull over and he runs off into the woods (presumably to die — like the dog he had as a child that he told Monty about) but Monty brings him back. With Simon back in bed at the house, the students take turns reading pages of Leaves of Grass to him. As far as I know, none of them are English majors (maybe Patrick Dempsey?).

At Simon’s funeral, only his four recent housemates attend. He wrote his own obituary which Monty reads aloud to the others. The students graduate (without honors) but they’re happy. Madonna sings the aforementioned banger (“I’ll Remember”) as the film’s credits roll. So, let’s be real, no big lessons are really learned by watching With Honors. It is not as good a film as Good Will Hunting. But it is still kind of an enjoyable rewatch for a 90s teen all these years later. If anything, With Honors will remind you of some truly epic hairstyles of the 90s and encourage you to always back up those computer files.


Diana DiMuro

Associate Editor

Besides watching TV and movies, Diana likes plants, the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school dropout. You can follow her on Instagram @dldimuro and Twitter @DianaDiMuro




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