Tom Green turns `Harvard' into an uneducated comedy

Funny ideas don't play out that way

September 13, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Did Stealing Harvard get green-lit because so many Ivy Leaguers have coasted into studio jobs that the title alone struck a chord?

Peter Tolan's screenplay has funny ideas, including a Home Depot for health care called Homespital: the parking lot is all handicap spaces. But overall, this script is about a good-natured Homespital worker named John (Jason Lee) who promises his niece he'll pay for college if she becomes a good student -- and years later has to come up with roughly $30,000 for her first year at Harvard. Almost as soon as the plot kicks in, this picture sinks beneath the sophomoric to the freshmanic.

If this tale is about Fate -- as John's bookend voiceover narration tells us -- then it's Fate as written by a ludicrous fickle finger that turns a bizarre transvestite episode into a life-altering event. And if this story is supposed to be about have-nots like John trying to help a girl get into the world of the haves, it would help if it bore some connection to contemporary life -- for example, if John made any effort, however slapsticky, to take out a bank loan or re-organize his assets before begging for the assistance of a mentally moribund friend, an inept landscaper named Duff (Tom Green).

Paradoxically, at the start, John does have $30,000, but his fiancee, Elaine (Leslie Mann), will marry him only if they use it to buy a house. Rather than come clean to Elaine about his promise to his niece, John flops right into Duff's foolish criminal plans -- schemes you'd call "harebrained" if that didn't insult rabbits.

Mann's Elaine is the funniest character. She whimpers chihuahua-like during lovemaking; she tries to establish a custom gift-basket business despite mistakes like sending a birthday basket to a funeral, and, most comically vexing of all, she's a daddy's girl -- and her daddy happens to be John's forbidding boss (Dennis Farina).

But she's just waiting for John to be commanding enough to turn her into a one-man woman. Mann has a feathery touch that tickles you even at her most normal; she's got a streak of beautiful absurdity running through her spine. And she turns annoying only when she descends into a shouting match with Green, who sets the movie's tone and brings nearly everyone down with him.

Green is a maladroit put-on artist. Nothing he does is meant to be real, but nothing he does works even as a burlesque of reality. His comic long suit is his pop-eyed floating intensity, yet it's an infantile intensity, aimed mostly at getting attention. He overpowers the normally appealing Jason Lee, who's made a specialty of finding the calm center of wacky situations, whether as a rocker in Almost Famous or a hi-tech tycoon in Mumford.

Lee has one inspired moment here -- he says he's in a state of "happy shock" and his face almost makes you believe the "happy" part. But under Bruce McCulloch's direction, he plays a monotonous straight man to Green and to a bunch of more conventional muggers, including the usually subtler Farina as his mucho macho father-in-law, and Megan Mullally as John's randy sister.

Like Adam Sandler's Mr. Deeds, this is a hybrid, hipster-cornball movie that wants to celebrate common folk but unapologetically uses words like "trailer trash" to describe them. What's meant to endear them to us is their sloppy affection for each other. The sentimentality and the pseudo-satirical condescension cancel each other out. They're a match made in limbo.

Stealing Harvard

Starring Jason Lee and Tom Green

Directed by Bruce McCulloch

Released by Sony

Rated PG-13

Time 83 minutes

SUN SCORE * 1/2

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