The #1 Movie in America: With Honors
By Sean Collier
August 13, 2021
The summer of 1994 featured a string of memorable blockbusters. “The Lion King” more than doubled the single-weekend record for an animated film. “Forrest Gump” kept popping up and winning weekends months into its run. “Speed,” “The Crow,” “The Mask,” “True Lies,” “Maverick” and more drove a busy summer at the multiplex.
The spring of 1994, however, was a dang mess.
After “Ace Ventura” became a surprise hit and “The Naked Gun 33 1/3” capped off the trilogy with a tidy win, pretty much anything could become the number one movie in America for at least one weekend. “D2: The Mighty Ducks” managed a win with just over $10 million, before too-late sequel “Major League II” nabbed a weekend with even less.
Then “D2” won again, because nothing else was going on.
It stayed weird. The forgotten Ray Liotta action flick “No Escape” topped the box office, despite earning just $4.5 million. “Four Weddings and a Funeral” somehow won in its sixth week — of limited release. The next week, Andie MacDowell became the first actress ever to star in consecutive number ones, thanks to the western “Bad Girls,” which itself barely cracked $5 million.
Somewhere in there, “With Honors,” a bad-idea dramedy starring Joe Pesci and Brendan Fraser, claimed the crown in its second week of release with a tiny $3.7 million haul. It was anyone’s game that weekend; the Top 5 all finished between $3.1 and $3.7 million, as the relatively small number of moviegoers who wandered into cinemas took a divide-and-conquer approach to the offerings. Had a mere $100,000 shifted, “With Honors” would never have been champion; “Four Weddings” almost picked up another victory.
The film went on to earn about $20 million; it’s only the 69th top-grossing film of the year. Inasmuch as it’s remembered, it is for later screenings as a cheap cable-TV choice — or for the Madonna hit “I’ll Remember (Theme From With Honors),” which earned Golden Globe and Grammy nods and undoubtedly rose to more prominence than the film itself. (If you even remembered that the song was from a movie, pat yourself on the back.)
While the film’s schmaltz and occasional moments of aspirational Gen-X cool earned it a fond place in the memories of some channel-flippers, “With Honors” is largely hackneyed — and more than a bit despicable. Pesci plays Simon Wilder, a vagabond living in the boiler room of a Harvard library; when he comes across the sole copy of a thesis belonging to ambitious undergrad Monty (Fraser), he bargains pages for privileges, taking up residence in a disused van near Monty’s apartment.
It’s a by-the-numbers life-lessons tale, with Fraser and his crew of roommates — the weird one (Patrick Dempsey), the love interest (Moria Kelly) and the jerk (Josh Hamilton) — bonding with Simon and learning about his life.
The film’s central message seems to be that people without houses are, in fact, people — a message not learned by the youths until stunningly late in the proceedings. To call it a fairy-tale version of poverty would be too kind (many fairy tales are more honest), and the few scraps of actual humor are counterbalanced by a bizarre, madcap lead performance.
In other words: “With Honors” is a box-office footnote, and that’s probably all it deserves.
“With Honors” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1977. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: We get to a pretty big hit.