I love this movie. Now, that’s not to say this is a good movie. It’s a totally stupid movie. But I love it anyway. Why? Because I sort of lived through everything in PCU. Let me explain.
I went to UConn from 1991-1995. My high school girlfriend went to Wesleyan at the same time. We lasted as a couple into our sophomore year and since she is super smart and was an exemplary student, she had no time to ever visit me in Storrs.
So I visited her in Middletown in 1991 and 1992. The writers of this movie, Adam Leff and Zak Penn, graduated from Wesleyan in 1990 and yes, PCU is about Wesleyan during that time. It’s funny to hear people complaining about “political correctness” these days, knowing what it was here in 1991.
Wesleyan and other liberal arts colleges and universities were way, way ahead of the PC curve. It hit its peak right around 1988-1992. I got to experience it every couple of weekends during that time. It was surreal, absurd, and completely lacked self-awareness. And there I was… a tall, white, straight, male who attended the – gasp! – state university. I was a pariah.
In other words, I was more or less the movie’s Tom character, though not smart nor wealthy enough to attend Wesleyan/Port Chester University. (Oddly enough, Movie Tom was from Delaware. My girlfriend and I came to Connecticut universities from Delaware.) Tom’s experience was also written to be somewhat similar to Zak Penn’s – though he came from New York City.
Tom meets up with the denizens of “The Pit,” a post-frat stronghold of non-PC holdouts. Everyone on campus hates The Pit crew, mostly because they refuse to join up one of the endless causes, movements, and protests on campus. The Pit was inspired by The Eclectic Society at Wesleyan, of which Penn was a member.
Eclectic is the oldest “fraternity” as Wesleyan, but it’s no longer a frat frat. Back when I’d visit, that’s where the parties were and since there were so many impossibly wealthy students with connections, they’d pull in national bands for random Saturday parties. (I saw The Spin Doctors there, who were terrible, just before the height of their success.) Eclectic was always in trouble with the student body for their “fratboy-ish” ways. Randomly, Joss Whedon was in The Society in the mid-80’s… and has been accused of “fratboy-ish” ways in the 2020’s.
The movie is the cliched college romp. The Pit is getting evicted because the racist preppie kid and the university president hate them. They must raise $7,000 to save themselves so they decide to throw a big party in the impossible hope that enough people that hate them will pay five bucks each to attend. After a series of setbacks, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic show up because “84 through Hartford is a mess” and the whole campus turns out and has fun.
After another setback, they sabotage the President, get her fired, save The Pit, and all the PC loons relax their stances. Hooray!
But here’s the thing. Every reviewer notes how absurd and exaggerated the political correctness on campus of the fictional PCU. There’s a great line in the movie from the president, “I think bisexual Asian studies should have their own house, the question is who loses out – get rid of the hockey team or the math department?”
Penn said he was influenced by his psychoanalysis class there; on the first day, his professor announced, “I’m a black lesbian trapped in the body of a white male oppressor.” Penn thought he was kidding. Everyone else in the class, which Penn said was full of “ardent feminists,” took him seriously.
I believe this story. The movie has a “Womynist House.” I learned that freshmen were “frosh” and women were womyn when I’d visit the campus. One of the womynists admonishes another upon learning who she used to date: “You went out with a white male?” My poor girlfriend was dating a white male who went to UConn. So sad.
One guy notes that he has his “intramurals final” coming up. Wesleyan was a weird place in the early 90’s. Tons of brilliant students (including my girlfriend who went on to get her MD and PhD at Yale, then went on to Johns Hopkins and is now at Sloane-Kettering in New York City. No, I don’t know why she dated me for almost four years.)
Then there were the idiots there. People who “studied” things like drum circles. Super rich kids whom I’d overhear saying things like, “I loooove the third world” upon seeing a Guatemalan purse. That place drove me nuts. The movie refers to the wishywashy students who go nuts for a cause, “The Causeheads.” They “find a cause and stick with it… for a week.”
So, so true. To me, the only over-the-top character was the preppy racist kid. He’d never have lasted at Wesleyan for a day. (His frat, driven underground because it was male-only, was called Balls and Shaft. To gain entry, questions included “Greatest president ever?” Ronald Reagan. “The best shoes to wear on your yacht?” bluchers.)
I’ve purposely not mentioned any of the actors. As The Hartford Courant wrote in 1994, “The modestly budgeted film has a cast of largely unknown actors.”
The racist preppie? David Spade. The main protagonist? Jeremy Piven. The grunge-loving Pit member? Jon Favreau. The college president? Jessica Walter (the wonderful Lucille Bluth on “Arrested Development”.)
And as for Zak Penn, he’s done alright for himself as well. He wound up in the Marvel Comics Universe and wrote The Incredible Hulk and got story credit on Marvel’s The Avengers, one of the highest-grossing films ever. He also did plenty of work on some X-Men films. (As you may know, Jon Favreau wound up in this same lucrative space.)
To sum up, regarding the time the movie took place, Penn said the school “didn’t have a sense of humor about itself.” I can confirm this is entirely true. Wesleyan was way ahead of the PC curve and went way overboard with it. But in retrospect, I recognize it was also important. We need idealistic college kids to push society to confront its inherent biases. By going overboard, smaller changes have happened across the country – and that’s a good thing.
I’ll probably watch this movie again in 20 years to reminisce about my weekends at Wes.
CTMQ Rating: 4 out of 5 thumbs up
Connecticutness: 161 out of 169 Nutmegs
Filmed in Connecticut? Nope
Rich Caucasian with a Big House? Yes