"With Honors" tells the story of a bunch of self-absorbed Harvard students who take in and befriend a transient and learn a lot about life in the process. The film is: less than original, obvious and unsurprising, and blunt about its emotional agenda. But it is also consistently entertaining and a refreshingly wholesome "feel good" movie.
Monty (Brendan Fraser), who rents a rundown house with Courtney (Moira Kelly), Everett (Patrick Dempsey), and Jeff (Josh Hamilton), has put a tremendous amount of work into his graduate thesis. While working on it one night a power glitch fries his hard disk, causing him to lose all he has stored on it. Luckily, he still has a paper copy of his thesis which is just about up-to-date. Not willing to wait until morning, Monty sets out to the closest photocopy store so that he won't have to rely on a single original.
A stumble finds the thesis falling through a nearby grate, down to the cellar of the campus library. An attempt to retrieve the paper results in the discovery of a drifter named Simon (Joe Pesci) who lives in depths of the library and who has now taken possession of said paper. Perfectly willing to use the thesis as kindling, Simon agrees to return the paper to Monty in exchange for a series of favors. Each favor results in the remittance of one page of the thesis, which is several dozen pages long.
Monty, who doesn't relish starting over from scratch, reluctantly agrees to the arrangement. Simon is even allowed to live in the dysfunctional van parked outside the roommates' home. Simon is a real character, constantly spewing good- natured sarcasm and revealing a unique perspective to the lives of Monty and his cohorts. While Courtney takes an instant liking to him and Everett finds him amusing, Jeff is none too happy he's around. Jeff won't allow Simon in the house, even when outside temperatures become life-threatening.
But as all come to realize, Simon may be irritating at times but he is perfectly harmless. Another thing that Simon is is dying, thanks to the asbestos he worked around for years. There is no cure for his condition, but it does serve to lighten Jeff's heart concerning him. The four roommates even agree to take him to see the now-grown son that he walked out on long ago.
"With Honors" settles for easy answers to some of life's tougher questions. Like "Regarding Henry", it presents an all too pat transformation in the disposition of its main characters. But this is where the quibbles end. The film is fun and, in spite of itself, occasionally profound. Joe Pesci gives a wonderful performance as the disheveled Simon, fully fleshing out what might otherwise have been a stereotypical character. Brendan Fraser, who can't escape a film without attending school, leads a talented group of younger actors.
A huge problem with films today is the rampant lack of creativity among filmmakers. Consequently, "With Honors" demonstrates a dangerous point. It proves that a film can be contrived and lacking in originality and still be very enjoyable.