Film

Harvard Man (2001)

Leah Hochbaum

Harvard Man's refusal to pass judgment on characters' drug use is troubling.


Harvard Man

Director: James Toback
Cast: Adrian Grenier, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Joey Lauren Adams, Eric Stoltz, Rebecca Gayheart
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Cowboy Pictures
First date: 2001
US Release Date: 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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image