There was no shortage of anger as principal Joe Clark rose to prominence earlier this decade, bringing order to a New Jersey innner-city high school by prowling the hallways with a baseball bat and a bullhorn.
His assignment was to bring up the learning level of the majority of students so they could pass the state's minimum basic skills test - otherwise the state would take over the school. Clark accomplished his goal, but courted controversy every step of the way.As portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the new film "Lean on Me," Clark is a self-centered, arrogant bully who terrorizes his teachers as much as his students, and who uses intimidation as much as the drug-dealers and violent kids he kicks out of school.
But he gets the job done. And one is forced to ask in the end if "Dirty Harry" tactics might not have been appropriate for this particular task.
As far as the film "Lean on Me" is concerned, Clark's methods are cheered on in the fashion you might expect from director John Avildsen, who also gave us such "underdog" heroics as the original "Rocky" and the two "Karate Kid" movies. But there is also an underdeveloped superficiality to it all.
And there is really no comparison with the similarly structured "Stand and Deliver" from last year, which had depth and compassion and a sense of reality that seems to be missing in "Lean on Me."
But "Lean on Me" gets a lightning bolt lift from Morgan Freeman's performance as Clark. He is egomaniacal and bombastic and suffers from a shoot-from-the-lip attitude that alienates those who would help him - and we're never quite sure that he's changed much by the end of the picture. But Freeman also brings out a gentler "tough love" side, and in his hands Joe Clark is much less despicable than he might have been. (And Freeman is supported by a bevy of fine performances from others.)
It seems likely that audiences will be happily manipulated by this film and probably might overlook the obvious negative aspects in favor of what the characters accomplish. To that end "Lean on Me" is an enjoyable, yes even rousing piece of entertainment, and offers a feel-good wrapup that, despite being unlikely and leaving a few loose ends, is fairly satisfying.
"Lean on Me" is rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, drugs and a brief shot of partial nudity when a girl is attacked in a restroom.