With Honors

Alek Keshishian dives into maudlin material in Without Honors, a film about how rich Harvard students befriend a spirited derelict and learn there's more to life than careers. Mixing elements from Down and Out in Beverly Hills and The Paper Chase, With Honors is a politically correct saga about the redemption of Monty (Brendan Fraser), a student of politics whose preppie good looks betray shy and sincere demeanor.

Clearly more comfortable with Harvard than skid row, the movie suffers from a contrived setup. When his computer crashes and his thesis vanishes, Monty carries his only printout to a copy store, but it falls through a sidewalk grate. Simon (Joe Pesci), who lives in the library's basement, recovers it. Sensing benefits, he negotiates a shrewd deal, selling Monty a page at a time in exchange for food, shelter, and bath.

Should you wonder what Simon was doing in the library, the script comes with an answer: he was reading Emil Zola's Germinal, which signals the message that homeless people like Romulus, Parry, and Simon can be educated and even erudite. But Simon comes across as a zany caricature: In an obligatory scene in movies about the homeless, he takes a bubble bath while wearing a Viking helmet and singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And he offers a most idealized take on homelessness: a sidewalk philosopher who outsmarts a renowned professor (played by Gore Vidal) and gets a rousing applause from the class.

Wearing its heart and politics on its sleeves, the drama turns symbolic in its depiction of the surrogate parenthood issue, with Simon functioning as a lovable father figure. We learn that, like Romulus, Simon left his wife and young son decades ago and that, like Matthew, Monty was abandoned by his dad.