Better Luck Tomorrow, a zippy black comedy about brainy Asian-American teens in gated Orange County suburbs, has a sly opening hook. Its sweet-faced hero, Ben (Parry Shen), and his tightly wound pal Virgil (Jason Tobin) are sunbathing in the back yard when they hear a cell phone twittering. But where? Following the noise, they drop to the ground, crawl along the grass and start digging up soil with their bare hands. Finally, they find the phone — and the corpse of its owner. The discovery plunges us into a topsy-turvy tale of American success that plays a bit like GoodFellas 2: The Honor Roll.

Ben, you see, is almost a parody of the Asian-American overachiever. He boasts a sterling GPA, joins high school clubs because it will look good on college applications, and, in search of that perfect SAT score, memorizes a new word every day — the first one here, aptly enough, is punctilious. But Ben is actually bored by all this résumé-building stuff, and along with Virgil and his James Deanishly handsome pal Han (Sung Kang), he's looking for excitement. It comes, finally, in the form of the sociopath Daric (Roger Fan), a smug, good-looking fellow student who insists, “We don't have to play by the rules. We can make our own rules.” Quickly moving beyond selling classroom cheat sheets, the four start dealing drugs, handling stolen goods and, like all good Americans, carrying guns. Yet even as Ben feels empowered by his new street cred — today's word is temerity — he suffers from an unrequited jones for the unattainable Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung), a cheerleader involved with a jaded prep school Lothario named Steve (John Cho).

“You can get away with anything if you're clever enough,” Ben says, and this might almost be the credo of director Justin Lin. His 1997 debut Shopping for Fangs was a torpid wolfman-and-lesbian picture that cobbled together every hip cinematic mannerism of the preceding decade; it seemed desperate to prove that an Asian-American director can be cool, too. Better Luck Tomorrow is a huge step forward, and though it doesn't fully transcend its small budget (the lighting is dingy), the story feels rooted in something more solid than prefab posturing. Lin knows the drudgeries and rebel dreams of kids like Ben, and he fills the movie with good jokes about everything from tokenism in school sports to the absurd rigors of the Academic Decathalon. Obviously delighted to show these A students gone wild, he topples time-honored stereotypes of dorky-docile Asian students (remember the egregious Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles?) and spotlights some striking young actors worthy of other major roles. While Tobin's Virgil has the comic ferocity of an egghead Beavis, Fan gives Daric a smarmy ebullience recalling the young Warren Beatty. Best of all is Cho, a wonderful, sardonic-faced actor who, as the princeling Steve, always appears torn by some deep, secret wound.

I saw Better Luck Tomorrow with a young Asian-American audience who howled at its social comedy — they laughed at jokes I didn't even know were jokes — but grew quiet during the muddled last half-hour, when the fun turns to bloody murder. The problem isn't simply the sometimes shocking violence but Lin's failure to face up to the bleak reality he's depicting. Reportedly re-edited to soften an ending that Sundance audiences found disturbingly nasty, the movie peters out, lapsing into a slack bout of retribution and wish-fulfillment so half-hearted in its cynicism that you can tell that Lin lacks the instincts for the amorality he appears to be courting.

The film's moral confusion finds an echo in the attitude of its characters, who couldn't be farther from the troubled Asian-American heroes found in countless earnest movies and books charting the pitfalls of cross-cultural identity. Far from being caught halfway between the Old Country and the U.S. — they are fully American, after all — Ben and his pals appear stranded in some eerie future. They inhabit a hypermodern suburban world scrubbed so clean of the past that they could have come out of a test tube designed to spawn smart, bored, disaffected kids who feel entitled to the world's plenty, yet disdain the privilege it brings. As Steve puts it, “You can't settle for being happy.”

Naturally, we never see any parents. Indeed, the only adult who remotely registers is a science teacher played by Jerry Mathers, the erstwhile Theodore Cleaver, who was clearly cast for his symbolic resonance. The aging Beav's clueless benevolence today evokes an idealized white-middle-class childhood that has become much more a universal punch line than anything resembling the American Dream.

BETTER LUCK TOMORROW | Directed by JUSTIN LIN | Written by LIN, ERNESTO FORONDA and FABIAN MARQUEZ | Produced by LIN, FORONDA and JULIE ASATO | Released by MTV Films | At ArcLight Hollywood, AMC Century City 14

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