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Rita Moreno Shines in Otherwise Uneven “The Prank” (SXSW ‘22 Review)

Image courtesy of XRM MediaSneak Preview Entertainment

In our modern age of unpredictable internet culture, anything can happen at any time and many people seem to just accept it. That seems to be the core angle of The Prank, a film that tackles concepts like fake news and false accusations in a way that is anything but subtle.

Ben Palmer (Outmatched’s Connor Kalopsis) is your run-of-the-mill high school goody two-shoes, but he’s balanced out by his chaotic best friend Tanner (Legend of Tomorrow’s Ramona Young). Ben’s physics teacher, Mrs. Wheeler, suspects that there’s a cheater among his classmates, and decides to fail the entire class until the cheater makes him or herself known. With a scholarship dependent on his physics mid-term, Ben has no idea what to do until Tanner comes up with what is surely a brilliant idea: frame Mrs. Wheeler for murder.

Mrs. Wheeler is played by the appropriately badass Rita Moreno (West Side Story), bringing her A-game to a relatively one-note character whose only direction seemed to be “act pissed and bitter about everyone and everything.” Moreno plays it very well, but there’s only so much that can be done. It stands as a disservice to her immense talents. Mrs. Wheeler is definitely a role crafted for Moreno, but I feel more could’ve been done to make her a character worthy of the actor behind her.

Similar to an Adam McKay film, The Prank’s humor almost always landed for me, but might not work for others. It doesn’t necessarily aim to be laugh-out-loud funny. Sometimes the film’s approach to humor clashes with its serious tone. The film is mostly effective in utilizing the dichotomy of comedy and drama to heighten the situation and escalate things further for our main characters. It actually gets funnier as it goes on, and the film’s second half is much more interesting than the first. At the same time, it ends up falling into the clichés that have plagued many similar films in the past, thereby lessening its overall impact.

There’s a plethora of minor achievements along the way, though. The supporting cast includes an array of excellent comedic actors, including Kate Flannery (The Office), Keith David (Rick and Morty) and Meredith Salenger (Hollywood Heights). They’re usually in isolated scenes, interacting with only one other actor, but those scenes are some of the film’s best. Connor Kalopsis is the most frequent scene partner, but he isn’t an incredibly engaging lead. It is unfortunate because he’s our focal point and we’re meant to sympathize with him and his situation. I ended up feeling worse for Moreno’s Mrs. Wheeler, not only because she’s the victim in this situation, but also because she’s played by a familiar face that I’ve come to associate with wonderful art. She was absolutely a standout, transcending her basic character and making it her own.

Weird and delightfully demented, The Prank shows us that Rita Moreno should almost certainly be praised as one of our greatest working actors, and proves that incredibly specific, quirky humor can still be utilized to great effect. There’s no story turn or thematic beat that can’t be glimpsed from miles (or minutes) away, but I still had a great time.

The Prank premiered at SXSW ‘22.