Fans of so-bad-they’re-good cinema may wish to bring as many friends, frat brothers, neighbors and like-minded nihilists as possible to enjoy “Harvard Man,” the new feature from James Toback. However, those who shell out money expecting some semblance of responsible filmmaking will find this film to be an astonishing mess.
Adrian Grenier stars as the eponymous character, one Alan Jensen who is a philosophy student and the star of the Harvard basketball team. Never mind that Adrian Grenier is too old and too short for the dimensions of this kind of character; in fact, this miscasting is the least of the film’s woes. Alan seems to have everything: his own luxurious dorm room (no roomies in sight), a hot-hot-hot cheerleader girlfriend named Cindy Bandolini (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and another hot-hot-hot girlfriend who happens to be his philosophy professor (Joey Lauren Adams…and, no, that is not a typo! We’ll get to her later).
One day, Alan receives news that his parents in Kansas lost their home in a tornado and are now stuck in a Red Cross shelter. Alan flies home and locates his poor folks, who stupidly never bothered to insure their home against this possible calamity and are thus completely destitute. However, Alan’s parents blithely inform him that they will be fine and he should go back to Harvard and continue with his studies. Somehow or other, Alan determines that his parents need $100,000 to start life anew, so he jets back to Harvard and asks his gal-pal Cindy if her dad can loan him the money. Why Cindy’s dad? Well, as convenience would have it Cindy’s dad is just the most important Mafia kingpin in the area and Alan assumes he is literally dripping with money to share.
With virtually no intense persuasion required, Cindy’s dad happily agrees to give Alan the money as a gift, not as a loan. But Cindy decides to have a bit of fun: she informs Alan that the money can come only if he throws an upcoming basketball game. Cindy plans to bet against Alan’s team via her father’s bookies (Eric Stoltz and Rebecca Gayheart). But unknown to everyone, the bookies are actually agents in the Boston bureau of the FBI. Actually, they are the entire Boston bureau of the FBI…the movie’s tight budget limits the number of on-screen agents to this duo.
Alan, for both love and money, throws the game. Or at least he supposedly throws the game, as his team loses by only two points and the film’s depiction of basketball is so strange that it is impossible to separate quality play from mediocre dribbling. (The game looks as if it was shot in a high school gyn and also features a motormouthed sportscaster calling the shots, even though the announcer is never seen on-screen.) The FBI pair go in for the pinch, deciding to nail Alan and use him to bring down Cindy’s father’s empire. If this isn’t bad enough, there is also an out-of-nowhere subplot where a classmate of Alan gives him three cubes of super-duper LSD. For no reason whatsoever, Alan decides to ingest all three cubes at once…setting him off on an acid trip which boosts his running skills to Road Runner-worthy speed. Alan races wildly through the streets of Cambridge while being chased by the FBI, his girlfriend, two goonish hitmen sent by his girlfriend’s father, his professor, the classmate who gave him the acid, and (in lieu of throwing in the kitchen sink) Al Franken playing himself.
“Harvard Man” is such a frenetic mess that it often feels like a live-action Tex Avery cartoon…only without the carefully-plotted humor. Characters jump out of windows, pull guns on each other, race about streets and hallways with supersonic speed, engage in frenetic sex at moment’s notice, and drive like maniacs with a death wish (ah, but you really know it is just a movie when the drivers are able to find parking spaces in Boston without any problems!). The film prefers stereotypes to well-written characters, serving up the lame images of vulgar Italian-American gangsters, oversexed African-American men, and modern women who talk tough but crumble their defenses with the first phallic poke in their nether regions. The only thing missing from “Harvard Man” is Harvard University, which had the good sense not to allow this shabby production anywhere near its campus.
The film’s performances are among the weirdest ensemble imaginable. As the title character, Adrian Grenier is very pretty but he cannot act. He uses the same expression (bovine-dull staring eyes and a gaping mouth) whether he is getting stoned, getting laid or getting into Heidegger. As his girlfriend, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s notion of a Mafia princess is a girlie who acts like Robert DeNiro. Unfortunately, she lacks the physical and vocal prowess to pull this off and she comes across like Minnie Mouse trying to imitate Pam Grier. And then there is poor Eric Stoltz, who is so bored by the proceedings that he doesn’t bother to give a performance. His character is given a cane, yet he never feigns a limp, and his half-hearted Boston accent switches on and off between scenes.
But the real star here is Joey Lauren Adams as the philosophy professor. With her bump-and-grind gait and helium-sucking voice, Ms. Adams gives life to the Big Bopper’s vision of someone with a wiggle in her walk and a giggle in her talk. And she would be perfect if this was a remake of “Striporama”…but as a Harvard philosophy professor, Ms. Adams offers the most unlikely depiction of academic brainpower since Mamie Van Doren’s performance in “Sex Kittens Go to College.” During her lectures on matters of a philosophic nature, her body language is completely at odds with the dialogue, which she seems to be reading phonetically from cue cards. The effect would be similar to frequenting an adult club and watching the go-go dancers break into a lecture on Nietzsche. At several points in the action, Ms. Adams is called upon to exhibit quick brainpower to save the characters from their actions. These sequences, where you can almost hear the inner mental cogs turning through Ms. Adams’ head as she uses her brainpower to save the day, are equivalent to watching a moose put on a straw hat and do a tap dance…it is wonderfully unexpected and totally at war with the bare tenets of reality. She is actually more comfortable elsewhere in the film when she is recruited for brief lesbian encounters; clearly these were inserted in tribute to her one memorable screen performance.
“Harvard Man” also includes a brief but engaging performance by a Coca-Cola can, which enjoys significant prominence in a cafe tete-a-tete between Ms. Adams and Rebecca Gayheart. The soda can is actually more alluring and gives a better performance than either actress, and one should be genuinely rueful that more time was not devoted to its character development and place in the plotline.
A quick history lesson: “Harvard Man” was originally planned a few years ago as a vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio, but that fell through after he appeared in a certain film about a ship that hits an iceberg. It tumbled through development hell for a few years before getting the green light. But once the film was finally made, the green light turned red: a 2001 U.S. release was aborted and the film was passed around before being acquired by Cowboy Pictures. It is currently receiving a limited theatrical release before its eventual burial on home video and late night cable television.
James Toback reportedly based “Harvard Man” on his own youthful experiences in the Ivy League. If the shenanigans on the screen are an accurate reflection of Toback’s college-age adventures, then he confirms that George Bernard Shaw aphorism about youth being wasted on the young.