The living legend’s vicious physics teacher is the only part of this dark comedy to make the grade.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 South by Southwest Festival)
Between the release of a documentary celebrating her long and amazing career and her scene-stealing supporting turn in Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story, Rita Moreno definitely had a 2021 for the pop culture ages. Alas, that undeniably welcome career resurgence hits a major hurdle in The Prank, an unspeakably lame mystery-comedy-horror hybrid that director Maureen Bharoocha seemingly devised to answer the question, “What if we took Teaching Mrs. Tingle but made it even stupider?” The result may not be the single worst film in this year’s somewhat lackluster SXSW lineup, but it’s close.
Moreno plays Mrs. Wheeler, an imperious high school AP physics teacher who has been terrorizing students and colleagues alike for more than 40 years. One day, she announces to her latest crop of terrorized students that one of them has cheated on the midterm exam and as a result, she will be flunking the entire class unless the perpetrator admits their guilt. One of those students is smart-but-stressed senior Ben (Connor Kalopsis), who despairs that this edict will destroy his chances of getting a much-needed college scholarship.
While commiserating with his best friend, slacker genius Mei (Ramona Young), she cooks up an idea for a prank designed to take Mrs. Wheeler down a couple of pegs. Using her mad computer skillz, Mei creates an online conspiracy theory out of whole cloth suggesting that Mrs. Wheeler murdered a student who mysteriously vanished a couple of years prior. The idea is that the rumor will blow up at school among the students, make Mrs. Wheeler look foolish, and then die out just as quickly as the kids move on to the next thing.
She (Moreno) livens up the proceedings simply through her withering line readings, venom dripping from every syllable.
Unfortunately, the plan works better than anticipated, as the local media—which appears to be comprised entirely of former students of Wheeler who still bear the psychic scars—latches on to it and gives the story added life, leading to Wheeler’s firing and arrest on suspicion of murder. Mei is amused by how her handiwork has borne fruit, but Ben feels guilty, both about the prank and another secret he may be harboring. Unable to live with himself anymore, he decides to pay a visit to Wheeler in order to confess everything. To put it mildly, things do not work out as expected.
Pretty much nothing about The Prank works. The screenplay by Rebecca Flinn-White and Zak White is a tedious example of preposterous plotting driven forward, at least in theory, by two of the more spectacularly annoying and off-putting characters in the recent history of high school cinema. The observations about the online community and how rumors can take on lives of their own are trite and uninvolving and the story as a whole comes across as cartoonish rather than satirical. That is all before the makes its not-especially-surprising detour into horror, a movie that shows that Bharoocha handles suspense as badly as she does comedy.
The only explanation I can think of is that the SXSW programmers were hoping that booking the film would ensure the presence of Moreno at the festival. Whatever trace amounts of life The Prank manages to maintain are solely the result of her efforts. She livens up the proceedings simply through her withering line readings, venom dripping from every syllable. Moreno’s literally the only reason to give The Prank more than a second of thought, but I assure you that you would be much better served to apply the time, energy, and expenditure to see it to watch her in West Side Story again—either version will do.