Review: ‘The Prank’ (2024), starring Connor Kalopsis, Ramona Young, Meredith Salenger, Kate Flannery, Keith David and Rita Moreno

March 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

Connor Kalopsis and Ramona Young in “The Prank” (Photo courtesy of Iconic Events)

“The Prank” (2024)

Directed by Maureen Bharoocha

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy film “The Prank” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latin people, Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two teenagers, who are in their last year of high school, spread stories about their physics teacher being a murderer, after she threatens to flunk them and the rest of the physics class. 

Culture Audience: “The Prank” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Rita Moreno or teen-oriented dark comedies that have ridiculous plots.

Rita Moreno in “The Prank” (Photo courtesy of Iconic Events)

“The Prank” is a bad joke on anyone expecting it to be a good comedy. This awful dud has very few redeeming qualities, such as Rita Moreno, who deserves better than this garbage. The plot twists get worse as the movie fumbles along to a horrible ending.

Directed by Maureen Bharoocha, “The Prank” was written by Rebecca Flinn-White and Zak White. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film and TV Festival. Considering that this sloppy and unfunny movie often looks like a student film, the filmmakers should consider themselves lucky that it was allowed at a high-profile and influential festival such as SXSW.

In “The Prank,” which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, best friends Ben Palmer (played by Connor Kalopsis) and Mei Tanner (played by Ramona Young)—who just goes by the name Tanner—are just a few months away from graduating from West Greenview High School. (“The Prank” was actually filmed in California.) In the school’s social hierarchy of students, Ben and Tanner are somewhat outsiders. Ben is nerdy and uptight, while Tanner is a freewheeling mischief maker. In her free time, she likes to engage in computer hacking. Tanner has also recently concocted a scheme to sell fake IDs that she made for underage teens.

An opening scene in the movie shows Ben’s home, where several academic awards that Ben has won are displayed on walls. Ben is an only child who lives with his supportive mother Julie Palmer (played by Meredith Salenger), who is a recent widow, because Ben’s father died six months prior to this story taking place. His father’s death is just a plot device to give Ben a motive to achieve his immediate goal of attending his father’s alma mater university, as a way to emulate and pay tribute to his father.

Ben is very stressed-out because he will consider himself to be a failure if he can’t enroll in his father’s alma mater university. The problem is that Ben won’t be able to enroll in this university unless he gets a full academic scholarship, which directly hinges on him maintaining the excellent grades that he’s had for the academic year. Ben and Tanner are students in the same advance-placement (AP) physics class, which is taught by Mrs. Helen Wheeler (played by Moreno), who has a longtime reputation for being very tough and insulting—not just with her students but also with just about everyone.

One day, Mrs. Wheeler announces to the class (which has 28 students) that she knows that someone has cheated on the most recent exam that she gave. Mrs. Wheeler says that if the cheater does not confess before the end of the school year, then she will give everyone in the class a failing grade. The students are very upset, but no one comes forward to confess. By the way, Mrs. Wheeler always wears black leather gloves—a quirk that is poorly explained during one of the movie’s stupid plot twists.

Word quickly spreads around the school about Mrs. Wheeler’s controversial ultimatum. In the faculty lounge, a teacher named Mrs. Gutierrez (played by Betsy Sodaro, who starred in director Bharoocha’s 2021 comedy film “Golden Arm”) asks Mrs. Wheeler if Mrs. Wheeler is really allowed to flunk an entire class just because one person cheated on an exam. Mrs. Wheeler haughtily replies, “If I allow a cheater to succeed, then I’ve failed!”

What does the school principal have to say about this extreme tactic by Mrs. Wheeler? Principal Henderson (played by Keith David, in a thankless role that doesn’t get much screen time) unrealistically doesn’t have much to say about it, even though he should. He has a tension-filled relationship with Mrs. Wheeler because they don’t like each other very much. Even though Principal Henderson is Mrs. Wheeler’s boss, he seems to be a little bit afraid of her.

Meanwhile, Ben’s anxiety increases because he knows failing Mrs. Wheeler’s class will ruin his chances of getting the scholarship to his first-choice university. Tanner jokingly suggests that they get Mrs. Wheeler fired by spreading stories about Mrs. Wheeler being responsible for the disappearance of a missing student named Wayne Lambert (played by Alexander Morales), who had a reputation for being a heavy drug user. Tanner describes an elaborate plan where Tanner would create phony email messages and fake photos to make it look like Mrs. Wheeler was having a secret affair with Wayne.

Ben is very reluctant to go along with this idea. “Isn’t it illegal?” he nervously asks Tanner. But it’s too late: Tanner has already posted her fake “evidence” on various social media platforms, so that everything can go viral. It doesn’t take long for the local news media to pick up the story. Mrs. Wheeler’s defiant reaction is to proclaim her innocence and double-down on the threat to flunk her entire physics class, because she’s certain that someone in the class planted this story as revenge.

Mrs. Wheeler’s reaction enrages Tanner, who then encourages people to think that Mrs. Wheeler not only murdered Wayne but also other students from the school who have gone missing over the years. The planted stories spiral out of control, thanks to irresponsible media people who don’t do any real investigations. A few of the TV reporters state on the air that they believe that Mrs. Wheeler is probably a murderer because she was mean to them when she was their teacher. The school’s biggest student gossip Phillip Marlow (played by Nathan Janak), who is obsessed with social media, also enthusiastically spreads the stories.

Ben, Tanner and Phillip are the only students who are given memorable personalities in the movie. Most of the other people at the school who have lines of dialogue are hollow, one-dimensional characters. Loretta (played by Kate Flannery) is a server at the school’s cafeteria. Tanner has an ongoing gripe that Loretta will only serve an allotted two strips of fried chicken per person for each lunch meal. When Tanner complains to Loretta about this serving limit, Loretta says she’s just following the cafeteria rules. A school janitor name Joe (played by Jonathan Kimmel) shows up at awkward times.

Tanner’s despicable actions and Ben eventually going along and participating make these two misguided students very difficult characters to like, even though “The Prank” obviously wants viewers to root for Ben and Tanner. But then, “The Prank” goes off in moronic directions in trying too hard to redeem Ben and Tanner for what they did to ruin Mrs. Wheeler’s reputation. The last third of this wretched story almost becomes a parody of a horror movie.

“The Prank” tries to be clever in ways that don’t really matter. Helen Wheeler is a play on words for the phrase “hell on wheels.” And gossipy student Phillip Marlow acts like he’s some kind of detective in trying to investigate the murder accusations against Mrs. Wheeler. Will a lot of viewers of “The Prank” really care that his name is spelled almost like famous fictional detective Philip Marlowe? No.

Moreno seems to be having some campy fun in portraying the obnoxious and sour-tempered Mrs. Wheeler. However, the performances from the younger cast members are often amateurish and very irritating. It might seem like an advantage to have a talented, Oscar-winning cast member such as Moreno in the movie, but when most of her co-stars aren’t even close to having Moreno’s level of acting skills, this discrepancy actually makes the movie look worse. What really makes “The Prank” an utter failure is the disjointed and idiotic screenplay, which stinks up the screen more than Mrs. Wheeler’s nasty attitude ever could.

Iconic Events released “The Prank” in select U.S. cinemas on March 15, 2024.

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