Joseph Kahn’s ‘Detention’ is attention deficit disorder in movie form

Alex Williams

“Detention” director Joseph Kahn spends pretty much the entirety of the film’s runtime alternating between daring his audience to hate him and making it clear how little he cares either way. From the very first scene, he’s making jabs at the concepts of thematic consistency and narrative clarity. But he’s also not above mocking his own career: A character early on rips on “Torque,” Kahn’s debut that bizarrely cast “Parks and Recreation” star Adam Scott as a hardened FBI agent.

The film’s plot is barely even a plot, a mishmash of staples from almost every genre shoehorned into your standard high school melodrama. Shanley Caswell stars as Riley, a militant vegetarian loner who carries a torch for the tragically hip Clapton (Josh Hutcherson). The high school is rocked by the demise of local queen bee Taylor Fisher (Alison Woods), and when a killer seriously resembling the title character of the movie-in-the-movie “Cinderhella” attacks Riley, things start to get weird.

Kahn got his start in music videos, and he takes a lot of his cinematic cues from that background. “Detention” could best be described as a candy shop of a film, full of bright colors and flashy displays and empty calories. There’s not a single human moment in the whole thing. Its characters are ideas more than defined figures, and some of them are built entirely from a pastiche of pop culture references. Even so, the way the film is constructed allows it to deftly dodge many of the criticisms that could be thrown at it, be it through an oddly familiar plot twist or the introduction of a time machine.

“Detention’s” cast isn’t given much to do beyond spout pop culture references, but there’s no obvious weak link. Shanley Caswell makes for a likeable enough heroine, and the chemistry she shares with Josh Hutcherson is the best thing “Detention” has going for it. Hutcherson is getting increasingly more impressive the more we see of him, and between this and “The Hunger Games” franchise, he’s proving to be an unexpectedly solid young leading man. Dane Cook manages to avoid embarrassing himself as a high school principal and Spencer Locke gives an interesting, multi-layered performance as head bimbo Ione.

As an exercise in postmodernism taken to its natural excess, it’s hard to critique “Detention.” It’s attention deficit disorder in movie form and couldn’t exist if other movies hadn’t paved the way for its plot and told the jokes for its characters (there’s even a reference to “nuking the fridge”). As a film, there’s a lot to pick apart, but Kahn throws everything at you at such a dizzying rate that it’s much easier to just sit back and watch. “Detention” has problems from head to toe, but the act of absorbing them is surprisingly painless, and at least it’s better than “Torque.”

Printed on Monday, April 23, 2012 as: 'Detention' uses excessive post-modernism, lacks plot