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Screwball Academy

1986, Starring Kenneth Welsh, Colleen Camp, Charles Dennis, Christine Cattrell, Angus MacInnes. Directed by John Blanchard.

One memorable scene of the profoundly troubled tax shelter outing Screwball Academy has a powerful religious organization protesting a film crew by holding up placards emblazoned with slogans like "Film is evil!" It's a moment that turns out to be wholly appropriate, since if any Canadian film deserves to be labeled as a tool of the devil, it's this lowbrow misfire.

Although clearly advertised as a suggestive frat romp, Screwball Academy wastes no time in breaking all three holy commandments of the teen sex comedy creednot only does it fail to titillate the senses or tickle the ribs, but it isn't even set in a school. Instead, the film awkwardly intertwines a story about a sleazy evangelist out to duck the law, a Mennonite coming-of-age tale, and a dull satire on the film biz. Further proof that Canadians and feature-length comedies rarely work, Screwball Academy surely disappointed many desperate video renters throughout the 1980s.

For the most part, Screwball Academy follows Bishop Wally (producer Damian Lee), a white-suited huckster with a flashy stage show who plans to move his once-lucrative religious organization, the Divine Light Church, to Wagatno Beach to avoid prosecution for unpaid property taxes. Making preparations for Wally's arrival is Elder Seth (Kenneth Welsh) an ornery old Mennonite who gave away his son Adam (Peter Spence) to the church when his boy was just a little baby. On the eve of Bishop Wally's return, though, Seth's now 17-year-old son also comes home and threatens to ruin his father's plansthe teen is busy dealing with stirrings of a non-religious nature, courtesy of beach bunny Robin (Wendy Bushell). Complicating things even further, Wagatno is also being used as the site of a movie production. Director Liberty Jean (Colleen Camp) is trying to film a feminist expos of the advertising world, while the Kukoff brothersher sleazy Czech producersruin her film with unreasonable demands, including the casting of screechy-voiced stripper Lita Lata (Christine Cattell).

There's so much wrong here that it's hard to even know where to begin. John Blanchard, a Canadian comedy veteran who has helmed countless episodes of northern sketch comedy classics SCTV and Kids in the Hall intended this Hollywood satire to be his breakout film effort, but with a tepid script, a miniscule budget and a noticeable lack of talented comedic actors to work with, the film falls completely flat. Camp struggles to stay on top as the whipsmart Liberty Jean, but she's drowned out by the outrageous stereotypes and overacting of the supporting players, who seem to think that they are making a broad Canadian slapstick comedy in the vein of the inexcusable Rebel High. The Kukoff brothers seem only to have been included to deliver raunchy (and thoroughly unfunny) dialect jokes, while Lita's over-the-top gold digging would disgrace Anna Nicole Smith. As a result, the satirical elements that should have kept this film afloat are completely lost under this crashing tide of screen mugging and cro-magnon humour.

Strangely enough, Screwball Academy was produced by American imports Damian Lee and David Mitchell, the notorious schlockmeisters busy making a name for themselves at the time with B-efforts like Busted Up and City of Shadows. There may be a clash of sensibilities at work, as evidenced by the film's grossly uneven tone, but it's hard to pinpoint exactly where Blanchard's directorial work ends and Lee and Mitchell's influence begins. It seems as though the whole third plotline involving Bishop Wally, has been tossed in the mix to pad out the running time and steal focus from Camp's directorial woes. Whether the "creative differences" between the usually humorous Blanchard and the proudly tasteless Lee and Mitchell is to blame for the film's failure is up for debate, but there's something clearly not right about the way the film's ill-fitting plots have been stitched together.

Appropriately, Wasaga Beach, a frat party hotspot located north of Barrie, Ontario became the unofficial home base for Canadian sex comedies in the 1980s. Like Fireballs and Recruits, Screwball Academy makes excellent use of the area's beach and slightly sleazy boardwalk, including a cringe-inducing finale between Adam and the bikini-clad object of his affection on a Ferris wheel. Beyond that, however, there's little Canadianess conveyed in the filmnot all that surprising, since Screwball Academy seems to have enough trouble communicating basic plot points.

Of all the infamous "balls" teen sex comedies, though, Screwball Academy is easily the worst, even giving the frequently offensive Fireballs a run for its money. Blanchard, of course, used a pseudonym for the film, as he would in his second feature produced by Lee and Mitchell, an all but unseen magic running shoe film called The Miles Ahead. Tellingly, this was not only Blanchard's last project with the dynamic producing duo, but also his final crack at the great Canadian feature comedy.

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