Higher Learning is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. This would be high praise if writer/director John Singleton hadn’t intended it to be a heavy drama. Overwrought, overstuffed, and just plain over-the-top, it’s a melodramatic message movie with more plot threads going on than the average daytime soap opera. If only one of those threads had been remotely interesting.

To Columbus University comes students from all walks of life. Malik (Omar Epps) is a track star with a sense of entitlement that comes with having an athletic scholarship. Kristen (Kristy Swanson) is a sheltered suburban girl who clutches her purse more tightly when she sees an African-American man. Remy (Michael Rapaport) is the awkward son of a survivalist from Idaho. During the course of their first semester, they encounter racism, rape, brainwashing, bi-curious tendencies, and campus shootings while apparently only taking one class, a political science course taught by Professor Phipps (Laurence Fishburne).

Malik falls under the sway of both Professor Phipps and a sixth-year senior named Fudge (Ice Cube). While both teach the importance of knowledge, Phipps encourages Malik to think for himself and not expect anything to be handed to him. Fudge views the world through a more cynical lens, noting how racism is practically embedded into everyday American culture. Kristen quickly becomes the victim of a date rape and befriends Taryn (Jennifer Connelly), the self-serious head of an anti-sexism group. It isn’t long before their relationship becomes more than just a friendship. Remy, ostracized because of his lack of social skills, falls in with a group of white supremacists. Is it possible that his loneliness and confusion might be twisted into a horrible act of violence?

It’s hard to make a film this full of itself without at least a hint of self-consciousness. But Singleton accomplishes that task without breaking a sweat. Whether it’s his use of trite sayings (“Knowledge is Power.” “Why do you need someone else to save you? Think about saving yourself.”) in the place of insightful dialogue or the silly musical cues for Kristen (tinkling piano and coffeehouse folk) and Remy (Rage Against the Machine), Singleton makes sure that even the dumbest audience member understands what the message of any given scene or character interaction is meant to be.

This obvious take on the material extends to the cast. Swanson milks the wide-eyed innocent look as fas as it can be taken. Rapaport overacts his inability to interact socially by lumbering through the film like he’s playing Frankenstein’s monster with a thick New York accent (by way of Idaho, I suppose). But it’s Connelly who takes the overacting prize. Playing Taryn like a Saturday Night LIve caricature of a campus feminist, she elicits the biggest unintended laughs with her “soothing” voice and doe-eyed looks. While Epps and Ice Cube tread water, doing their best not to embarrass themselves with the thuddingly obvious dialogue they’ve been given, only Fishburne rises above the material, bringing an essential dignity to a heavily clichéd character.

Full of hokey dialogue, stale plots, stereotypical characters, and melodramatic direction (seriously, I kept waiting for characters to start rending their garments), Higher Learning is one of the most under-appreciated comedies of the last twenty years. But as a serious look at racial, sexual, and economic inequality, it’s a staggering misfire.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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