Napoleon Dynamite may have been maligned for crossing over, selling out, being funny—whatever it was that bothered people in retrospect. But movies like Harold illustrate just how tricky it is to make an original, independent coming-of-age comedy. Despite his decade or so writing for Saturday Night Live, director-cowriter T. Sean Shannon struggles with the comedy part, and the coming-of-age part doesn’t come off so well, either.
At SNL, Shannon made a series of “Bear City” films, quick vignettes depicting the day-to-day lives of humanoid bears (which is to say, humans in bear costumes wearing human clothes, which is to say kind of hilarious no matter how mundane). Harold‘s concept also marries the absurd to the mundane: the title character (Spencer Breslin) is a 13-year-old boy who looks like a 50-year-old man, complete with severe male pattern baldness.
Though it looks at first like a visual gimmick, we soon learn that Harold’s personality, too, is prematurely old: he enjoys settling into an easy chair, reading the newspaper, and maybe catching a rerun of Murder, She Wrote or Matlock. It’s a funny idea, carried out gamely by young Breslin, but I may have spoiled about half of the film’s laughs just by describing it.
The movie is supposed to be about Harold struggling to fit in and make new friends when his mother (Ally Sheedy) takes a job in a new town, but there’s no depth to the character’s beyond-his-years crankiness, or his struggle for acceptance. Instead, we get cruel bullies, a climactic Go-Kart race, and a wacky janitor, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Given the existence of Daddy Day Camp, Snow Dogs, and Boat Trip, Gooding’s presence in a kid-centric comedy isn’t as annihilating as possible—but he’s has fallen into such bizarre, amateurish disrepair as an actor that even his bids to play small and offbeat are tone-deaf. Gooding isn’t exactly bad as the janitor; it’s more like a nice try, no better or worse than the Oscar-free newbies playing high schoolers. If Gooding wants to get back to his loose, charismatic roots, he’ll have to look elsewhere.
Shannon brings some SNL alumni to fill out the faculty, but Rachel Dratch and Chris Parnell don’t have the material to sustain even their sketch-length bit parts. The jokes in Harold stubbornly remain at that size, small enough to all fit comfortably into a ten-minute short (which is apparently where the project began, back on SNL).
Sometimes Harold talks to the camera (rarely funny); occasionally, his fantasies are visualized onscreen (kind of funny, at least when said fantasies involve yet another human in a bear suit; maybe Shannon should’ve trusted his one-track mind); together, little of it fits or flows.
Given a long, 90-minute gaze, the world of Harold is insufficiently realized, to the point where it’s difficult to tell if the use of Go-Karts as a teenage status symbol is supposed to be funny, sweetly innocent, or just part of a budget concern. The world of the film seems limited on the DVD, too, which contains few extras; just a trailer and footage from the film’s premiere. For all I know, everyone involved may be extremely proud of their work on Harold, but the movie feels like a labor of love orphaned by the halfway mark. Bear City looks more and more like a better place to spend your time.