A basketball player strikes a deal with the mob to fix a basketball game.
FILM REVIEW; Hoops, Love, LSD and the Mob, Harvard-Style
Sarah Michelle Gellar, taking a break from vampire-slaying, can currently be seen in ”Scooby-Doo,” playing the designated damsel in distress opposite her real-life boyfriend, Freddie Prinze Jr., and a slobbery computer-animated dog.
Starting today, Ms. Gellar can also be seen in James Toback’s ”Harvard Man” as Cindy Bandolini, a mobster’s duplicitous, sexually confident daughter who is also a member of the Holy Cross cheerleading squad and the girlfriend of Harvard’s starting point guard.
If John Hughes and Jean-Luc Godard had teamed up to direct a third-season episode of ”The Sopranos,” they might have come up with something like this film. Buried under the gangster bravado and the avant-gardist’s disdain for narrative coherence and dramatic effect that are the hallmarks of Mr. Toback’s style is an earnest coming-of-age story, and a cautionary tale about the perils of drug use, gambling and existentialist philosophy. Or to put it differently, Mr. Toback uses his improbable, conventional story as the trelliswork for a series of wild and florid riffs about sex, ethics and the delirium of renegade moviemaking.
As an artist, Mr. Toback (who graduated from Harvard in 1966) has something in common with his hero, Alan Jensen (Adrian Grenier), a bright, irresponsible kid for whom truth-seeking is often indistinguishable from thrill-seeking. ”Harvard Man” resembles the term paper that a talented, feckless undergraduate might pull an all-nighter to finish. It has a caffeinated, sloppy brilliance, sparkling with ideas you wish had been developed with more care, but animated by an energy that puts the dutiful efforts of more disciplined grade-grubbers to shame.
Alan, a nimble ball-handler, dances through his increasingly perilous life with a cocky insouciance mirrored by Mr. Toback’s jumpy, improvisational approach to storytelling. Many of his scenes — some of the best, some of the worst and some that may fall, on successive viewings, into both categories — seem to follow a simple premise: put a few actors in a room with a camera and see what happens. Behind the camera, and in the editing bay, Mr. Toback appears to follow a similar impulse, using jump cuts and 360-degree pans to create a feeling of delirious, chaotic motion.
At the start of ”Harvard Man,” which opens today in Manhattan, Alan’s life is a tumble of pleasures and complications. The only class he seems to attend is a philosophy course called ”The Self and Its Loss” — partly because the themes appeal to him, and partly because he’s sleeping with the squeaky-voiced professor (Joey Lauren Adams). Cindy, if she knows, doesn’t seem to mind, and Chesney, the professor, has some kinky extracurricular sexual interests of her own. (But does she have tenure?)
Back in Kansas, though, a tornado has leveled Alan’s parents’ house, and he flies back to find his parents sleeping on the floor of a high school gym. (His grouchy dad, played by Booth Savage, gets Alan’s name wrong, perhaps because of post-traumatic stress, or perhaps because Mr. Toback could not be bothered to shoot another take.) Determined to help them, Alan approaches Cindy’s father at his seaside villa (in a part of Massachusetts that looks a lot like Florida) and ends up agreeing, in exchange for $100,000, to shave points in the game against Dartmouth, a contest on which Cindy promptly bets a quarter of a million dollars.
Before long, our beleaguered Ivy Leaguer must contend with a pair of jealous women, a pair of thick-headed apprentice wise guys, a pair of kinky F.B.I. agents (Eric Stoltz and Rebecca Gayheart), and the effects of three sugar cubes soaked in the super-potent original formula for LSD. Tripping his brains out on the banks of the Charles, he encounters a famous alum, the comedian Al Franken, who is touring campus with his daughter, a high school junior who would rather go to Duke. (Can you blame her?)
In his last film, the sprawling, scabrous ”Black and White,” Mr. Toback probed the racial and sexual neuroses that trouble American society even as they give American pop culture its vibrancy and strangeness. That movie included, among other moments, an unforgettable scene in which Robert Downey Jr. made a pass at Mike Tyson and was nearly strangled by the enraged ex-champ.
”Harvard Man” is less ambitious than ”Black and White” (and less apt to get under your skin than ”Fingers” or ”Two Girls and a Guy”), but it shows, once again, that Mr. Toback is one of the few American filmmakers willing to risk looking ridiculous in the pursuit of seriousness. He understands the lure of risk — sexual, moral and psychic — and is disinclined to judge those who succumb to it, in part because he rarely resists it himself. Nor do his actors. In addition to a few strenous sex scenes, Ms. Gellar carries off a teasing Robert Downey-Mike Tyson moment of her own (involving Ms. Gayheart) without batting an eyelash or breaking a sweat.
Mr. Toback’s honesty comes close to cynicism; the moral of ”Harvard Man,” apart from the danger of hallucinogens, is that everyone can be bought off, blackmailed or seduced. But his cynicism has a curiously idealistic flavor. He may mock Alan’s sophomoric prattle about breaking the boundaries of the self, confronting the void and so on, but he does not entirely dismiss them.
There is, undeniably, something a little sad about this. One cannot survey Mr. Toback’s fascinating, infuriating body of work without a sense of enormous potential squandered, of the great career that might have been. And yet, at the same time, ”Harvard Man” brims with a boyish, nervous energy. It seems like the work of a promising young director with a boundless future ahead of him — a promising young director who graduated from college the year this critic was born.
©A. O. SCOTT
New York Times
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