His glasses are bigger than Larry King's. He strolls around the neighborhood in brown socks and sandals. His favorite lunch is liver and onions. He reads the entire morning paper on the can. He loves reruns of "Matlock" and "Murder, She Wrote." He's bald, bald, bald. And he's only thirteen years old.
There's something truly inspired about the comic premise behind "Harold," a small-scale indie comedy about a boy who's far beyond his years. Sure, the jokes are easy, and the plot barely rises above its nerd-does-good formula, but the premise, oh, how it shines. Spencer Breslin, the young actor once trapped in thankless roles in crummy movies like "The Cat in the Hat" and "The Shaggy Dog," now gets a movie all to himself, and he's downright brilliant, clearly relishing the chance to play a teenage curmudgeon as if beamed in from some crazed alternate universe. Even the way he walks in this movie is funny.
Breslin plays Harold Clemens, whose male pattern baldness kicked in when he was five. This has left him a bitter young man, yelling at the kids who lose baseballs in his tomato garden. When his mom (Ally Sheedy) lands a promotion at work, this means moving to a new town - which devastates Harold, who realizes a new school means being the weird new bald kid.
Besieged by bullies, ignored by the in crowd, and put upon by uncaring teachers, Harold finds refuge in a circle of nerds and outcasts, among them bubbly go-kart expert Rhonda (Nikki Blonsky). He also befriends the school's janitor, Cromer (Cuba Gooding, Jr., done up with one heck of an afro), who, an outsider himself, understands Harold's problems. The kid's many adventures ultimately lead him to the school's annual go-kart race; a victory would lead to acceptance for Harold, or, at least, total embarrassment to whichever popular guy winds up losing to the nerdy bald freak.
Writers T. Sean Shannon (who also directed) and Greg Fields are both veterans of sketch comedy ("Saturday Night Live" and "In Living Color," respectively), and their screenplay shows it, often paying more attention to character quirks and episodic gags than to the actual story, which unfolds quite predictably, as if the whole "plot" thing is a chore. (The big race finale is about as low-key as a finale can get, essentially telling the audience, "look, we'll follow the formula for this sort of thing if we have to, but don't expect us to get too worked up over it.")
And that suits the movie just fine. "Harold" works best when it's leaning back, casually tossing character notions at us. There's a fun scene midway through the film in which Harold winds up in a strip club, and the humor comes from watching this grumpy bald kid chat with the club's regulars (among them a wonderfully weird Colin Quinn) and oddly cordial strippers. Later, when the film tries to take Harold's strip club pals and place them into the story, things don't click, but the mere idea of Harold having strip club pals at all is funny in itself. The same happens with a plot thread in which Harold wishes for a go-kart for his birthday but gets a secondhand Rascal scooter instead; the script strains itself placing the scooter into the go-kart race, to no real success, yet there's a goofy delight in watching Harold and Rhonda putt around town like a biker and his chick.
(Indeed, Breslin and Blonsky have such a sharp chemistry that I wonder why the movie even bothered with the superfluous storyline about Harold's crush on the popular girl. It's just another element that's there just to be there, and we yawn.)
While the script works in some clever one-liners, it's the cast that ultimately makes the material shine. In one early scene, Fred Willard cameos as a bumbling doctor. The joke is that he doesn't realize Harold is just a teen, and thus subjects him to inquiries on blood pressure and sex, and, of course, issues a prostate exam, ha ha. It's a one joke scene, and the joke is far too obvious, yet watch how Willard and Breslin (who matches the comedy icon beat for beat) handle that joke. Even when Shannon tries to pile on the cheap gags (one awkwardly framed shot tries too hard to oversell the "Dr. Jellyfingers" punchline), the actors find the right rhythms, making even the most predictable set-up work.
The whole cast - yes, even Gooding, who smartly manages to avoid caricature in a character that's nothing but, and wins some big laughs while finding the movie's heart - is fantastic, and it's the cast that keeps everything afloat. Cameos from Shannon's comedy pals (in addition to Quinn, we get Rachel Dratch, Dave Attell, and, as a demented gym teacher, Chris Parnell) add a carefree touch, each providing a good dose of character quirk.
And yet even with all these quality performances, the movie still stumbles, losing steam every time the story deals us another card from the outsider-teen cliché deck. Had Shannon and Fields attempted a smarter plot, "Harold" could have been something truly special. But with so many lazy gags (did I mention the one where Suzanne Shepherd plays an over-the-hill sex maniac with an eye for Harold? or the subplot about the Asian convenience store clerk who thinks Harold is a gay alcoholic?) and lazier storylines (Harold tries to fit in with the popular kids, only to find embarrassment at the school dance), the cast is called upon to carry increasingly mediocre material. They pull it off, bringing a great deal of silly charm with them, but it's not fair to Breslin, who creates this witty, wild character, but too often gets stuck with nowhere to go.
Video & Audio
For a low budget comedy, "Harold" looks rather good in this 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. It's essentially shot like a sitcom, and the bright, even lighting creates a clean, crisp look to the film, despite a decent amount of grain that's present throughout.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack doesn't get a chance to show off, considering the film relies mainly on dialogue, which comes through just fine. The film's pop music accompaniment is well balanced. Optional Spanish subtitles are included.
Footage from the "red carpet premiere" (4:12; 1.33:1 full frame) provides a quick collection of cast and crew interviews, with everyone briefly explaining how fun it was to make the film, the inspiration for the characters, etc. The clip ends with special guests (Steve Guttenberg!) and regular folks alike exiting the movie and fishing to find polite compliments about the film.
The film's trailer (2:02; 1.78:1 anamorphic) is also included; a batch of previews for other City Lights releases plays as the disc loads.
While the script never gels into anything worthy of the peculiar premise, "Harold" is still worth seeing, if only once, for Breslin's marvelously weird performance. Rent It.