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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Harvard Man
Harvard Man
Lionsgate Home Entertainment // R // October 29, 2002
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 20, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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Legend has it that the screenplay for Harvard Man was pitched to Don Simpson five minutes before the über-producer behind Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun keeled over. Critical reaction to the long-delayed film wasn't much more positive when it finally lurched into a limited theatrical release after close to eight years in development hell. Harvard Man is the latest effort from writer/director James Toback (The Gambler, Two Girls and a Guy), who's made no secret of his drug-addled years at one of America's most respected institutions. The film, which once had a relatively unknown actor named Leonardo DiCaprio attached as the lead, is one Toback had been striving effortlessly to push through the Hollywood machine. Harvard Man didn't make much of a splash theatrically, but courtesy of Lion's Gate Home Entertainment, it may be able to find an audience on home video.

Adrian Grenier (Drive Me Crazy) stars as Alan Jensen, a philosophy major, point guard for the Harvard basketball team, and the all-around Harvard Man so subtly suggested in the film's title. He's schtupping both cheerleader Cindy Bandolini (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who also happens to be the naughty daughter of a reputed mobster, and philosophy professor Chesney Cort (Joey Lauren Adams, the Carol Kane for the new millenium, following an equally hard-to-swallow turn as an Oncologist in In The Shadows). Unlike most of his classmates, Alan doesn't hail from old money, having been shipped to Massachusetts by his family in Kansas. A tornado makes short work of his familial home, stranding Alan's uninsured kinfolk in a high school gym. Conversations with his two lady loves bring him in front of Cindy's father, who's sympathetic to Alan's plight, but not to the tune of a loan for a hundred large.

During a coital pitstop on the drive home, Cindy fills Alan in on the good news. Pops may not have been willing to shell out a hundred grand for a loan, but a gift...that's another matter entirely. Even better, there are no strings attached, though Cindy meekly asumes that Alan might want to express his appreciation by throwing an upcoming game against Dartmouth. The family bookies (Eric Stoltz and Rebecca Gayheart) have their own agenda, eyeing Alan as their key to grinding the Bandolini empire into a sticky paste. A pair of hitmen, dispatched by the elder Bandolini who fears a rat is in his midst, are also hot on Alan's trail. Just in case that wasn't quite enough, Alan gobbles three sugar cubes laced with LSD, shattering his perception of reality as seemingly everyone in the greater Boston area is after him.

I wasn't quite sure what to make of Harvard Man. Toback had spent years trying to get the film produced, but apparently he didn't do much fine-tuning in the interim. Portions of the plot had already been cribbed for Toback's Black and White, and its characters remain largely one-dimensional and undeveloped beyond the twelve-word summaries in the press kit. Shot in a marathon twenty days, the performances are underrehearsed, feeling more like an initial table reading than a multi-million dollar finished product. Perhaps Toback was pushing for a raw, improvisational feel, but the finished product is stilted and unconvincing as a result. The LSD sequences are too goofy to be taken seriously, and that's to be expected at first. However, they fail to culminate in anything terrifying or really much beyond Power Goo manipulation or assorted morphing. I found Permanent Midnight to handle the progression of its drug-induced hallucinations much more effectively. The pair of inept hitmen, another tried and true staple, are intended to provide some comic relief, but they offer fewer laughs than any given episode of Bram and Alice on CBS. Despite the fair amount of (fully clothed) screwing gingerly distributed through the film, none of it is sexy or in any way appealing. The choppy feel of the movie is accompanied by skittish editing and innumerable jump cuts, giving the film an even more chaotic feel. Certainly, some of these points were fully intended by Toback as he notes in the disc's audio commentary, and perhaps I'm just not cinematically adventurous enough to appreciate his work here. Harvard Man doesn't come across as a criminally overlooked screenplay produced against all odds by a maverick filmmaker. The screenplay feels as if it was banged out in its entirety on the red-eye to L.A. in a caffeine-fueled frenzy, with not enough time spent in pre-production and too little decent material to manipulate in post.

Adrian Grenier, who was cast for his pan-gender good looks rather than his acting talents, is insufferably bland as Alan Jensen. Lacking any energy or apparent enthusiasm, Grenier sucks all of the life of Harvard Man into his inescapable abyss of disinterest. After gulping down a triple-hit of acid, Alan takes a 180 degree turn into cartoonish overacting. Ray Allen manages to be even worse, though he thankfully gets far less screentime. Allen nearly brought me to tears in He Got Game -- and no, not because of a compelling performance -- and it's beyond my comprehension that anyone would hire him a second time. Sarah Michelle Gellar's self-serving Mafia Maiden echoes her bitchy turn in Cruel Intentions. It takes Gellar's character a while to show just how nasty she can be, and the role of Cindy doesn't ask much of the actress until that point. I am wholly incapable of getting past Joey Lauren Adams' voice, and I have a tough time picturing her as such a young philosophy professor at a university with the reputation of Harvard. The Swingers With A Secret™, Eric Stoltz and Rebecca Gayheart (the latter of whom appears to have picked up mascara tips from Margo Tenenbaum), are stock characters leftover from any movie aired on Cinemax After Dark in the past fifteen years.

Toback states in the disc's commentary track that plot is incidental for his films. He wants to make challenging works that require multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. His goals are more psychological and visual in nature. I can appreciate what he's trying to accomplish, but I didn't find Harvard Man to be a successful experiment.

Video: To lift a line from Stanley Spadowski, "I'm thinkin' of somethin' orange...somethin' orange...give up?" This DVD release preserves the film's 2.35:1 theatrical presentation in anamorphic widescreen, but Harvard Man looks like Cambridge by way of Hell as its palette veers perilously towards the ruddier end of the spectrum. Most every shot is bathed in red and orange. Such tinting isn't unprecedented, and Steven Soderbergh's recent Traffic is one obvious mainstream example. I admittedly didn't give Harvard Man a spin theatrically and don't have a point of reference outside of various trailers. Still, a casual scan of reviews for the film didn't turn up any mention of such extreme color fiddling. This is in stark contrast to critics' musings on Traffic, where the tinting and related stylistic choices were frequently noted. James Toback also doesn't comment on the tinting at any point in his meticulously detailed audio commentary. Neither the trailer on the disc nor the French trailer boast a remotely similar color scheme.

Even if this DVD release faithfully represents the intended appearance of Harvard Man in that respect, the image is still muddied by a general lack of fine detail, particularly noticeable in wider shots. The handful of specks isn't enough to annoy, but there are more than I'd expect from such a recent theatrical release. Brick walls, rooftops, and car grills have a tendency to shimmer wildly, and a fair number of shots are riddled with noise. A full-frame version of the film is also available on this single-sided, dual-layered disc, contributing in no small part, I'd imagine, to the onslaught of nasty digital artifacts that mar the presentation.

Audio: Harvard Man is presented in Dolby 2.0 Surround only, unusual in a day when even a healthy percentage of newly produced microbudget direct-to-video schlock sport six-channel mixes. The rears are effectively utilized during Alan's lengthy LSD trip, engulfing the viewer in the tormenting voices, and some panning is even noticeable during the airport scenes. Otherwise, surround use is largely limited to reinforcing the score by Ryan Shore and various songs scattered throughout the film's 100 minute runtime. The subwoofer made its presence known during the first couple of minutes of Harvard Man, again thanks to a song, but it was rarely heard from after that point. This is all more or less to be expected from a dialogue-heavy film, but the inconsistency with which the dialogue is delivered is not. Some portions sound harsh and highly compressed, particularly during Al Franken's brief appearance as the concerned parent of a potential Harvard student. Others are about as obviously looped as the Kenny in any Gamera import, with lip movements hardly matching the words creeping out of the center channel. Worse still, these are integrated into the film alongside remarkably different sounding dialogue, most notably in a conversation late in the film between Alan and Chesney.

Harvard Man also includes Spanish subtitles and English Closed Captioning.

Supplements: James Toback contributes an audio commentary that encompasses most every possible topic of discussion. The writer/director examines technical aspects (such as a crane shot that he sees as one of the highlights of his career; the entire movie was shot with a Steadicam), visual metaphors, the cast, juxtaposition (a favorite topic), and the real-life inspirations for many of the film's themes. Aside from the commentary, the only other supplement is a full-frame trailer.

Harvard Man has been divided into 28 chapter stops. The disc's menus are static, and almost every available option is accessible through the main menu. I frequently find myself annoyed by animated menus and having to endure lengthy transitions as I sift through DVDs, so this sort of authoring decision is welcome and will hopefully find itself more widely adopted.

Conclusion: I found Harvard Man to hover in that ambiguous space between "liked it" and "didn't". It's a movie with some interesting ideas that didn't fully gel for me, bogged down further by a number of flaws whose cumulative effect is too significant to overlook. I didn't find Harvard Man's release on DVD to be any more remarkable, largely because of its noisy, orange-tinted presentation. Though I don't recommend Harvard Man with any great enthusiasm, fans of the cast and Toback's previous films may find this DVD to still be worth a rental.
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