[28 February 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Some movies require you to tune into their particularly weird wavelength less you find yourself confused, or ever worst, critical. Fail to sync up properly and it’s safe to say that you will spend the rest of the running time on the outside looking in, angry and unimpressed. Such is the case with the Real Rushmore Genius rip-off Hairbrained. Like Napoleon Dynamite which exists on its own pseudo-plane of reality, this film finds a “child prodigy” meeting up with a “late bloomer” (a better title might be “adult who should know better” or “obvious plot contrivance”) existing in a space where Henry Spencer hair on acid is the norm, middle aged men date far younger coeds, and trivia challenges are on campus king. If you meet it head on, you’ll find it halting but still hilarious. If you try and work some logic into the mix, you’ll miss the mark - and the potential amusement - totally.
Eli Pettifog is a gifted 13 year old who is desperate to go to Harvard. When he is rejected by the prestigious Ivy League University, the incredibly young brainiac ends up at Whittman, “the 37th best small liberal-arts college on the East Coast.” His deadbeat mother (Parker Posey) more or less disposes of him there, and he instantly feels lost. Then he meets up with dorm mate Leo Searly, a gambling addict (Brendan Fraser) who is trying to rebuild his life after bankruptcy, divorce, and numerous personal set-backs. For Eli, getting back at his dream school is all that matters, and when he learns that Harvard will be coming to Whittman to participate in an extracurricular activity known as “College Masterminds,” he immediate hijacks the team. Add in some ancillary love interests and a last act competition beatdown (?) and you’ve got Wes Anderson on whippets (no, not the dog).
If quirk were plutonium, Hairbrained would be a 1000 megaton radioactive delight. It would explode across your cinematic senses in all manner of marginalized fringe dweller funny business and provide you and yours with a wealth of repeatable lines to make you a hit at your next interpersonal mixer. However, don’t be fooled by idiosyncrasy. Hairbrained doesn’t have much more to offer. It’s so infected by previous entries into this kind of offering (already mentioned before) that it can’t find its own reason to exist. Eli is an amalgamation of dozens of other misunderstood prepubescent MENSA members, twee and trying while still finding ways to worm his way into your heart. We instantly recognize his trying-to-hard demeanor and hope he will see the error of his eccentric ways. He’s not the greatest central character to cheer for, but one rarely feels guilty for supporting his cause.
Leo, on the other hand, if far more problematic. We are supposed to see him as a safe schlub, a wrongheaded reject who torpedoed his own life and is not trying to find something else to save/shelter him. Eli offers a bit of guidance, but he’s just a kid and college is all temptation. Unfortunately, that’s almost all this adult is surrounded by. Again, this is a man twice the age of those he’s hitting on, a less than successful lothario but a self-described “creepy” presence none the less. When Rodney Dangerfield set his sights on the fertile coeds in Back to School, you knew almost instinctually that he was all bravado and bluster. Here, Fraser’s reading is more ambiguous, as if the only reason this mid-life crisis male is even handing around a college is to pick up chicks. Toss in the one-dimensional characters surrounding our leads and you’ve got a real challenge on your hands.
Of course, the key to any comedy is laughter, and Hairbrained does inspire a hearty chuckle or two. The story, by director Billy Kent, screenwriter Adam Wierzbianski, and Sarah Bird doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but on occasion it captures the ludicrousness of Eli’s aims quite well. While we never get the kind of subversion in the Martha Coolidge masterpiece Real Genius, we do understand how hard it is for this superior child to live in an inferior world. His mother looks like a refugee from John Waters’ Mortville and his awkward romance with a townie (Julia Garner) reflects on his own lack of maturity. Even the material meant to “highlight” the rules of education are trite. The jocko-homo bully stuff is stupid and the attempt by Eli at romantic revenge is even more mindless.
And yet, there is something sweet and satisfying about this underdog dramedy, especially when it’s brains, not brawn or beauty that ultimately wins the day. The whole Masterminds angle borders on those classic SCTV “High Q” sketches, but it also allows the film to shy away from the typical us vs. thems to establish Eli and his pals as people who do have special gifts. Just because its knowledge of trivial things doesn’t lessen its impact. In fact, Hairbrained seems to suggest a value in this skill set that far surpasses the degree guarantees a place like Harvard provides. Said diploma will open doors. What Eli has will work for him the rest of his life.
If only this film weren’t so in love with its homage-heavy past. It’s just hard not to mentally name check Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, Monsters University, and all the other You-U movies mentioned before. Perhaps if it didn’t try so hard, if it allowed itself a little organic interaction and quasi-realistic character concerns, we’d be less likely to disengage from what’s going on. Again, it’s all a matter of finding this film’s wavelength. If you locate it and latch on, you’ll be amused and more or less entertained. But just like the hero at the center of our story, behind exceptional doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wanted. Harvard turned down Eli for reasons that become obvious throughout the course of Hairbrained. Perhaps they just needed to find his frequency. The movie may have the same problem as well.