Harvard Man (2001)

2002-04-12 (Limited release)

Diehard fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and I count myself among them) might be surprised to see their heroine doing her damnedest to shake her good girl image in James Toback’s semi-autobiographical, LSD-tripping Harvard Man. But they shouldn’t be. Before becoming everybody’s favorite girl hero, Sarah Michelle Gellar portrayed All My Children‘s second generation teen schemer Kendall Hart, daughter of Susan Lucci’s Erica Kane, as well as the coke-snorting, stepbrother-craving, all-around meanie Kathryn Merteuil in Cruel Intentions.

For that film, she dyed her Buffy blonde hair a blah shade of brown. Here she lets loose her golden locks for her role as mob daughter and Holy Cross cheerleader Cindy Bandolini. But while it is Gellar’s superb acting — rather than her honeyed mane — that holds this film together, the plot actually centers on the titular Harvard man, Alan Jensen (Adrian Grenier), a basketball star (though his less than towering stature makes that a stretch) with a predilection for narcotics and those of the female persuasion. A veritable chick magnet, Alan has been regularly bedding both Cindy as well as his philosophy professor, Chesney Cort (Joey Lauren Adams).

At first, it seems that the squeaky-voiced Adams is woefully miscast as a Socrates-spouting lecturer, but she pulls it off, displaying a range not hinted at in previous roles. Chesney seems to satisfy Alan’s thirst for intellectual intercourse, while Cindy is the hot, rich, bad girl that Kansas native Alan always wanted but never thought he could have. Toback never makes it clear why Alan is such a prized commodity. Surely two ladies with so much to offer wouldn’t dream of settling for this drug-addled boy. Perennially high, he coasts through his conversations with them, only awaiting the next sack session.

Alan is the big man on campus, rarely going to any classes besides Chesney’s, but his easy life comes to a screeching halt when he learns that his parents’ house has been destroyed by a tornado. Desperate to get them the money they need to rebuild, Alan turns to Cindy’s father (Gianni Russo), a mobster with a soft spot for his daughter and an iron grip on his money. He says no, but Cindy, a shrewd Mafia princess if there ever was one, lies and tells her beau that her dad will lend her the money if Alan agrees to throw the next Harvard-Dartmouth game.

Unsure what to do, Alan puts off making any decisions and instead takes a trip down acid lane, ingesting enough of the substance to kill him. Rather than dying, Alan finds himself in a suspended state of reality, in which faces distort before his very eyes (and ours). While this effect is humorous at first, eventually, it wanes. Besides, we already know Alan’s high by the blank look in Grenier’s eyes.

It is in this condition that Cindy finds Alan roaming the streets of Boston. Realizing that her moneymaking scheme might not be such a sure thing after all, she tries to reason him into sobriety. Here, Gellar shines. Her nuanced portrayal of a character who might have been a one-note, stereotypical Daddy’s girl is inspired. Though it’s somewhat jarring at first to see Gellar sans the Scoobies, Spike, or her own personal Prinze, with Buffy scheduled to end its six-year run after this season, even this tawdry flick proves that she’ll survive outside Sunnydale.

Harvard Man‘s refusal to pass judgment on characters’ drug use is troubling. Consider the scene where Cindy, being questioned by police, leisurely rolls a fat joint, licks the paper seductively and lights up without any fear of being hauled in for possession. Real people do not blaze up doobies while in the company of cops. It’s just not done.

While I don’t propose censoring movies that show drug use, Harvard Man seems pernicious, portraying Alan’s frenzy as a rollicking good time and failing to mention a possible downside. Toback, himself a Harvard graduate and survivor of an 8-day LSD trip (a trip from which he never thought he’d return), portrays drug experimentation as a “normal” part of growing up. Maybe it was for him, but nostalgia for his own college experience doesn’t excuse his film’s meandering plot lines and unconvincing machinations.

Most movies that focus on the dangers of college drug use are either “fun” teen romps or long-format After School Specials. Harvard Man chooses the road not often taken, with its tale of a boy trying to do right by his parents, but wronging himself in the process. Alan never sees any error in his ways, never learns a lesson — probably not a good “message” for those kids who will sneak in to the movie, despite the R rating. Popping a pill when the going gets tough is not the act of a mature individual. But I guess Harvard Boy doesn’t have the same ring to it.