Better Luck Tomorrow (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Better Luck Tomorrow is one of the better movies that I've seen recently.

It manages to take a reliable, overused film setting (the high school years) and look at it through a fresh set of eyes. It is neither a typical coming-of-age soap opera nor a predictable romantic comedy, but incorporates elements of both. It is a freshly imagined story about a high school criminal gang composed of the least likely elements - the best students in the school.

Four over-achieving Asian Americans start running various scams to make extra money. They start out by selling homework and test answers, gradually expanding their business. They can get away with far more than typical students because they know how to play the adult game. They get straight A's, and shoot for 1600s on their SATs. They are national champions in the academic Olympics. They play on sports teams and participate in just about every school activity. They do volunteer work in hospitals and clean up beaches. They have jobs, and are invariably chosen as "employee of the month". All of this simply makes sure that adults stay off their backs, and that they will be quickly forgiven if they get caught doing things they should not do.

Of course, the trouble they get into gradually expands from the usual student pranks into far more adult behavior - like armed assault and even murder (this isn't a spoiler - their problem with a dead body precedes the opening credits). And their homework-for-profit scams gradually expand to activities with far greater profit potential, like burglary and drugs.

At first the other kids just treat them like a bunch of nerds until they start flashing the weapons which allow them to convert their newly discovered economic power into psychological power, at which point the rest of the kids start to treat them with the kind of fear and grudging respect normally reserved for the toughest guys in school - all while they retain their academic credentials. The film's author recognizes one thing that moviemakers usually don't understand, that people who are both talented and driven to perfection are good at everything - they are no less qualified to be great criminals than to be great physicists. These four guys simply use their genius and drive to succeed at racketeering.

The four of them are affected in different ways and to different degrees. Some are almost able to keep their perspective and remain who they had been before their criminal successes, while others are seduced by the power offered by their new lives. Some eventually want out, while others want to become full-fledged criminals. So it is in life.

What makes the film extraordinary is that it manages to take your basic high school story and run that as a surface plot, while it runs a lurid Tarantinoesque undercurrent simultaneously.

Imagine, if you will, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Now imagine that Damone's low-level crime of ticket-scalping had been accompanied by the brutality and ugliness of real crime - violence when people failed to pay him, for example. Now imagine Damone as a straight A student who is also president of every club, and also packing heat.

There you have Better Luck Tomorrow.


Adiadne Shaffer provided full-frontal nudity as a Vegas hooker hired by the boys

You have probably noticed that I didn't spend a lot of time writing about the fact that the main characters are all Asian-Americans. It really doesn't matter much. In an earlier time, the same characters could have been Jewish. In the future, they may be Eastern Europeans. Asians just fit well into the characters because the Asian community seems to stand for high achievement in today's cultural metaphors, and these characters seem to come out of the current Asian-American mythology, experience, and imagination.

But the combination of brains and amorality is a traditional and familiar one, even though it is usually ignored in film and literature. After all, extremely brainy, totally amoral people don't usually go on to write films and books, so who would tell their story?

In fact, although I went to high school in the 1960s and my family is Northern European, I related to this film better than I have to any high school film in my memory. I almost hate to admit how much I was like these guys, but this filmmaker is about the only one in my experience who seems to have some grasp on what my own high school years were like. In most teen stories the rebels are also underachievers, and the "good" kids are portrayed like something out of a Mormon wet dream. That doesn't always reflect reality. I was also a rebellious troublemaker who found that good grades, obsequious behavior, and high achievement were a perfect cover. In my experience, the figures in academic authority are generally dipsticks. If you get straight A's and seem sincere, they will never suspect you, and will forgive you anything if they actually catch you.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic

  • unfortunately, no special features

Many of my friends were also closet subversives, as were many of the best and brightest students that I taught in my brief teaching days. The differences between us and the other troublemakers were that we never showed adults how we felt, we were smart enough to get away with almost everything, we rarely got caught, and we took our revenge quietly and secretly. Just like the kids in this film. I wasn't into money the way the guys are in the film, but I was immediately able to relate to what these over-achieving Asian kids were thinking about, and how different they were from the way adults perceived them.

The Critics Vote

  • USA panel consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 3.5/4.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 7.7/10, Yahoo voters an A-. People 18 and under score it an astronomical 8.9 at IMDb.
  • It grossed slightly less than $4 million on about 380 screens.


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a B. A remarkably astute, original, and entertaining movie. I was going to say C+, the typical score for a cult film with limited crossover appeal, but this movie obviously had broad appeal, even though it was strongest with high school audiences. Even though the box office wasn't strong, I was swayed by the fact that it scores very high with voters at both the elitist IMDb (just out of the all-time Top 250) and the mass audience Yahoo (A-). With top scores from both critics and audiences, I couldn't find any excuse to rate it below B, even though few people have even heard of it.

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