||Jack Neo’s 2002 blockbuster I Not Stupid centered on three Singaporean elementary school students as they desperately struggled to earn good grades, despite being deemed worthless by their families, teachers, and society as a whole. I Not Stupid Too continues the education theme of its predecessor and retains much of the same cast, but this time around the actors are portraying different characters and the plot focuses on the next logical progression in the series: those troubled, angst-ridden teenage years, albeit with a Singaporean twist.
Narrated by nine-year old Jerry Yeo (Ashley Leong), the film follows not only his life, but also that of his older brother, fifteen-year-old Tom (Shawn Lee), and Tom’s pal, Lim Cheng Cai (Joshua Ang). Tom and Jerry (!) come from an upper middle-class background, complete with a nice house, two working and obviously successful parents (writer-director Jack Neo and Xiang Yun), a live-in grandma, and a domestic maid in tow. Tom loves the Internet; in fact, when we first meet him, he’s just won a trophy for being a champion blogger, whatever that means.
Cheng Cai, on the other hand, is more physically active. He’s an adept fighter with dreams of being the next Bruce Lee. Unlike Tom, Cheng Cai comes from a working class background and lives in a cramped apartment with his widowed ex-con of a father (Huang Yi-Liang). His dad may have the right intentions, but he has a pretty horrible parenting style - if Mr. Lim doesn’t like his son’s behavior, he has no problem beating the hell out of him.
The Yeo family represents super-successful parents who are way too busy to be involved in their children’s lives, but are disgusted if they don’t live up to their expectations. Consistently shown to be hypocritical when laying down rules, and hysterical in their reaction to even positive aspects of their children’s behavior, the Yeos come across much worse than the physically-abusive Mr. Lim. While the Yeos want their children to be just like them to insure success, Mr. Lim doesn’t want Cheng Cai to follow in his footsteps, ending up in jail like he did or even worse. In execution, however, neither approach is particularly helpful, the generation gap widening even further as the film progresses. Will these out-of-touch parents finally get a clue and re-connect with their children or will they simply let them fall through the cracks? Since this is a Jack Neo family film, the answer shouldn’t be too hard to figure out.
Performance-wise, Shawn Lee and Joshua Ang have matured into fine young actors since they first appeared in the original I Not Stupid. They do most of the dramatic heavy-lifting in the film, making even the most blatant attempts to tug at the audience’s collective heartstrings into something less crass and more sincere and moving. Young Ashley Leong serves as the film’s comic relief, particularly in an amusing subplot in which he thinks he impregnated his cute classmate because they kissed and took a nap in close proximity to each other. He also gets the underserved brunt of his parents’ ire towards the end of the film in a scene that pretty much encapsulates the unspoken theme of the film: “Don’t be a dick to your kids.”
But even with these strong performances, I Not Stupid Too isn’t quite as weighty or as well-crafted as the original. Like many of Jack Neo’s works, the film is extremely heavy-handed in trying to get its point across. The film begins with the question, “When was the last time someone praised you? When was the last time you praised someone?” And then the film proceeds to show parents and teachers who not only don’t seem to know the meaning of the word “praise,” but who seem to take great pleasure in doing the exact opposite for the majority of the film’s running time. Look Mr. Neo, we get it. Kids need to be praised. But can that go too far?
The film doesn’t even acknowledge the downside to an organized campaign to get parents to praise their kids at every turn – namely, that they might become spoiled brats. Aren't there negative consequences for praising kids for mediocrity, for giving trophies just for participation, for coddling your children way too much? Granted, Jack Neo seems to want to rectify what he sees as a national educational problem (a crappy attitude toward kids), but the solution seems too pat and uncritical. Of course, what I intuited to be the film’s underlying message - “Don’t be a dick to your kids” - would probably be a tad inappropriate for a national slogan.
The film also seems to be all over the place in terms of social commentary – more bark, than bite in its attacks. Selena Tan, who played the physical embodiment of the kind of nanny state that Singapore is sometimes thought to be, shows up as an English-speaking principal who relies on the stock phrase “according to the law” to avoid responsibility and common sense solutions. This is an idea that Neo would later follow up on in 2007’s Just Follow Law, but here it’s really just a political footnote as the film takes aim at the Speak Mandarin Campaign, corporal punishment, teacher-student conflicts, and juvenile delinquency, all with varying success.
The film also goes a bit over the top in terms of its portrayal of Singaporean parents. Surprisingly, Mr. Lim, who we see physically assault Cheng Cai, actually gets a more even-handed portrayal, as he’s a man out of touch with his time period, haunted by his past, and incapable of connecting with a son that he, above all, loves. His pathetic attempt to show love to his son by buying him a backpack goes horribly awry - he can’t afford one that’s age-appropriate for Cheng Cai, so he purchases a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle bag instead. Here, we feel sorry for the guy when his attempt to please his son falls flat.
The Yeos, on the other hand, don’t exactly get the same kind of treatment from the film nor do they ever elicit an equivalent level of sympathy. Selfish, privileged, and woefully ignorant about their children’s lives, the Yeos are so unremittingly depicted as bad parents that I almost wished something bad would befall Tom and Jerry just to send these jerks into a spiral of self-recrimination and possible suicide. In any event, humanizing the Yeos early on, rather than waiting for the eventual “OH NO! WHAT HAVE I DONE?” moment would have given the film a more convincing veneer of verisimilitude.
Another problem with the film is that some of its “serious issues” don’t seem that serious. The filmmakers’ idea of juvenile delinquency - young teens walking around bare-chested and/or skipping school to play video games - is pretty laughable, not just in an American context but even in comparison to local Singaporean cinema. The hardcore in-your face depiction of Singapore’s lost youth in Royston Tan’s stomach-churning 15 makes I Not Stupid Too look ridiculously out of touch with contemporary youth culture. It also doesn’t help that this “youth gone wild” montage is cut together like a music video, complete with lyrics that ostensibly spell out the themes of the film. Subtlety, I gather, has never been Jack Neo’s forte.
Admittedly, the original I Not Stupid also had a preachy element to its narrative, but its sometimes heavy-handed message was tempered with adorable performances from its young leads and a storyline that really resonated with audiences. I Not Stupid Too, however, seems more like a glorified afterschool special, despite its good intentions and some nice performances by its young leads. (Calvin McMillin, 2009)