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The Conformist

Stefan Weinberger

The Line (2023)

It’s not that boys will be boys, or men will be men. It’s power corrupting power. It’s an ugly mentality but one that we, as a society, seem completely disinterested in changing, even as movies about disgusting frat-house culture can be made anew every couple of years. “The Line” is a solid, but not smart, addition to the genre. On the plus side, it knows to its bones the games men play with each other that aren’t really games. On the minus, it has no idea at all about how power includes women. This lazy omission means “The Line” comes up short.

Tom (Alex Wolff, a star on the cusp) is starting his sophomore year at Sumpter College and as a rising member of his frat, KNA. His roommate is Mitch (Bo Mitchell), an unpopular brother but a legacy choice thanks to his fearsome father (John Malkovich). Chris Friehofer, the casting director, deserves a special mention for choosing Denise Richards to play Mr. Malkovich’s wife in their one brutal little scene. The frat president, Todd (Lewis Pullman), makes Tom his deputy despite his youth. Tom is delighted, seeing this as a vote of confidence and a good sign for the long-term career prospects he’s hoping the frat will lead to. But it’s also well-known that Tom doesn’t come from money; and his friendship with Mitch is also seen as poisonous.

Despite these grumblings, the beginning of the new pledge season goes well until Mitch takes a heated dislike to one of the pledges, Gettys (Austin Abrams, another star on the cusp), and starts making things pretty ugly pretty quickly. But Tom isn’t worried, since he believes his natural leadership ability – beautifully demonstrated in the sophomoric speech on the stairs and by Mr. Wolff’s gift for subtle unease under prime arrogance – and friendship with Mitch means he can steer clear of true trouble. But he underestimated Mitch’s arrogance – this is a young man who, when pulled over, yeets the beer can out the passenger side and shows the officer a copy of his father’s driver’s license – and Gettys’ sense of defiance. Gettys is also a legacy pledge, uninterested in the bro-bonding and dumb football games, but wanting to leverage the connections from his dad’s frat for his later career. He also spits in the potato chips, which is probably the least of the crimes against hygiene the pledges are busily doing in revenge for their treatment, but it’s the only one shown.

But director Ethan Berger, who cowrote the script with Alex Russek from a story by Zack Purdo, made one major mistake. You know the saying be careful what you pretend to be, because that’s what you become? Tom thinks he’s pretending to be a frat bro. The only woman in the film is Annabelle (Halle Bailey, whose decision to appear is a fascinatingly pointed choice), a student in Tom’s literature class, who doesn’t shave her pits and whose name is only given in the credits. Tom is quite taken with her – and “armpit girl” has nothing better to do – so they sleep together a few times and are seen walking together outside class. But their scenes together are specifically to remind Tom there is a world outside of the frat, with different values and ethics, that he’s leaving behind by choice. It’s not even sweet like the flirting between the sports dudes and theater girls in “Everybody Wants Some!!” because it’s all about Tom. And when things do go horribly wrong, the way Tom behaves towards “armpit girl” is what gives the movie its final, nasty power.

Of course, a smarter movie would have built out Tom’s relationship with his mother (Cheri Oteri) and the much older sister that he mentions in passing. It would have given Ms. Richards more to do than drink wine and utter a few tight remarks. It would have had the guys in the frat sometimes getting bored of cocaine, strippers and golf. None of them have even the smallest visible level of respect for women (the fact the frat is entirely white is left to speak for itself, but of all the slurs that fly around in the dialogue none are racist). It also might have given “armpit girl” a personality other than what Ms. Bailey embodies and the character’s refusal to be Tom’s mirror. Why are these young men only interested in each other? There’s an entire world out there; and they’d rather throw beer cans at each other’s heads instead of literally anything else.

But this is a movie that sincerely believes what it has its 19-year-olds tell each other repeatedly: the young men in the frat set the tone for campus culture, and therefore American culture, and therefore the culture of the world. A whole lot of people (even at the Tribeca Festival) will laugh themselves silly at this concept, but not a lot of people who know how to stomp out secret societies’ Mexican-standoff combination of loyalty, entitlement and blackmail. (Even Scoot McNairy in a cameo can only do his best.) It’s that lack of imagination on Mr. Berger’s part that hampers the film. The world and its attitude to power are shifting; and Mr. Wolff and Mr. Abrams give performances well worth seeing, but “The Line” is still partying like it’s 1999.


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