Stealing Harvard
review by Gregory Avery, 13 September 2002

In the farcical comedy Stealing Harvard, Jason Lee plays John, a young guy who, on the eve of getting married and buying a house to settle down in, is called upon to make good on a promise he made long ago to his niece -- that he would pay for her to go to Harvard should she ever get accepted to go to school, there.

Since the niece is played in the film by Tammy Blanchard -- the wonderful performer who appeared in last year's TV film Life with Judy Garland, and who's adorable, here -- the conceit works. And Jason Lee, who's getting better and better as a performer, gets down perfectly the look and feel of someone who is on the verge of accepting, and falling into, domestic mediocrity -- the fixed smile, resigned look, and sleepwalker motions of someone who's living comfortably with a nice woman (Leslie Mann) -- who runs a gift basket business from home ("Do you think the biscotti make it too busy?") -- and a job that pays well and where too much is never expected from him. When John has to come up with the money for his niece -- $30,000 worth -- it saves him from making the leap over the precipice. (And, to his -- and our -- pleasant surprise, he also finds out that his bride-to-be isn't as square as he thought she was.) This happens when he turns to his noncomformist, outlaw-spirited friend Duff, the kind of part that, not so long ago, Michael Keaton or Bill Murray would've nailed in a flash. Here, the part has been cast with Tom Green, and the only question is, did the filmmakers agree to bring him onboard or was he thrust upon them? The film was directed by Bruce McCulloch, one of the talented members of the Canadian comedy group Kids in the Hall (McCulloch also turns up in this film as a lawyer, in the closing scenes), and he knows how to shape comedic scenes and get them to play; the movie, up until Green's first appearance, has the makings of a perfectly decent comedy (and it still does after that point, too). But it cannot be denied: Green ruins every single scene he's in, and the film, while it's not completely wreaked, is seriously compromised by that.

With the wide eyes of a Benzedrine addict, Green works himself up to a rigid, strangulated, trembling state of near-hysteria. He lunges his way through scenes, grabbing at any and all ideas, fumbling around with one, dropping it and then nabbing at another one. It's not performing, it's scrambling, and, since he doesn't give you any way to follow what he's doing, it must be extremely annoying for a lot of people to watch. In fact, Green seems to be acting this way ON PURPOSE, which would make a lot of people wonder more: If he can't bother to perform in a coherent fashion, why should we be expected to spend our time and attention watching him? Green doesn't really work with the other performers (Lee, in fact, seems to be keeping a healthy distance from him most of the time), because, in order to do what he's doing, he has to throw up an invisible shield around himself to turn the focus in. He's a guy who seems to be trying to turn a form of utter desperation into a shtick. And, since his character, here, is a jerk (albeit a lovable one -- Duff is initially described as "a man who's ideas are so dumb, they're brilliant"), it's doubly unappealing.

As for the filmmakers, they're left in a lurch: to paraphrase from another source (a "Tom Slick" cartoon, in fact), the movie's got a hole in it the size of a 50 cent piece, and all they've got to fix it with are two quarters. As for Green, he may turn into a curious anomaly, like Bill Dana's Jose Jimenez character in the 1960s. But Green also projects a certain kind of hostility, which makes you gotta wonder: what is going to happen to this guy? Who is going to be able to use him? Sam Kinison and Don Rickles could get hostile, too, but you at least knew what they were hostile about. Tom Green practices a sort of onanistic hostility -- he gets himself into a state not because of anything in particular, but just because. He's like a kid still bouncing up and down on his bed in his suburban bedroom, meaninglessly play-acting to the walls. Or, as on a recent late-night rerun of his MTV show, putting a coffee filter on his head and pretending to be an Imperial storm-trooper from Star Wars. Monica Lewinsky was with him on that segment of the show, and, despite his best entreaties, not even she would do that.

Directed by:
Bruce McCulloch

Starring:
Jason Lee
Tom Green
Leslie Mann
Dennis Farina
Megan Mullally
Tammy Blanchard
Richard Jenkins
Chris Penn
Seymour Cassel

Written by:
Peter Tolan

Rating:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may be
inappropriate for children
under 13.

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