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THE BASIC premise of "Dead Man on Campus" is a ubiquitous campus legend: If your roommate dies during the course of the semester, you are given a free ride on grades.

If only audience members could volunteer to be the lucky ones to take the early exit.

The film takes place at the fictitious Daleman College, a mid-level institution of indeterminate location.

Josh, played by Tom Everett-Scott, is a dweeby, straight-laced Hoosier with a full academic scholarship, "on track" to complete a medical degree. His roommate is Cooper, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar (last seen in the mind-numbing Saturday morning television series "Saved by the Bell"), a rich, malcontented ne'er-do-well son of a plumbing magnate with a strange, Linus-like security attachment to a four-foot purple bong.

The mix proves toxic. Led by Cooper's care-free penchant for campus nightlife and abetted by a suitably perky co-ed (Poppy Montgomery), Josh loses all his discipline and finds himself in danger of losing his scholarship.

And after a call from the dean, Cooper's father threatens to pull him out of school and make him clean toilets for a living.

The obvious solution is the dead man clause in the school's charter -- a guarantee of straight A's if their third roommate dies. The rest of the film is spent on a quest for a series of appropriately demented prospects, whom they will push to the brink and, hopefully, beyond.

The first of the pair's prospective marks is Cliff (Lochlyn Munro), a psychotic and chronically randy frat-house party animal who is recruited after Josh and Cooper spot him hurling water balloons and hanging half naked from a third-floor balcony. Munro, who looks much like a young Gary Busey, is perfectly cast and is unquestionably the film's brightest spot. His performance is energetic and original, and he provides some of the movie's funniest moments.

The biggest problem with "Dead Man on Campus" is its sheer lack of a base in reality. Its one-dimensional characters are poorly developed stereotypes of what the film's creators imagine college students to be like, and neither the cast nor the audience is given much credit for their intelligence.

After bedding his first co-ed, the uptight Josh enters an apparently irrevocable spiral -- the very next scene shows the former straight-edge student back in the sack and firing up a joint. Where is it written in any collegiate handbook that a little living must be diametrically opposed to academic success?

For the creators of "Dead Man on Campus," it seems, life is an all or nothing affair.

It's lucky for Gosselaar that his hair was colored black for the role of Cooper, otherwise he'd be a dead ringer for "Saved by the Bell's" Zach Morris, if slightly older. But despite the cosmetic changes, no one is going to mistake Gosselaar for an actor with range.

Also, the action of the movie takes forever to get going. There are 45 minutes of odd-couple-type interplay between the roommates before their plot is hatched, most of which is simply not funny.

"Dead Man on Campus" is another in a string of fairly tasteless summer offerings, one that is ultimately more harmless and silly than it is offensive.

Dead Man on Campus
Rating: * 1/2
Two socially opposite college roommates attempt to avoid failing out of school by recruiting a third roommate and provoking him to commit suicide.
Directed by Alan Cohen, featuring Tom Everett Scott and Mark-Paul Gosselaar.
Rated R, opening today in area theaters.

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