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With: Adrian Grenier, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Joey Lauren Adams, Eric Stoltz, Rebecca Gayheart
Written by: James Toback
Directed by: James Toback
MPAA Rating: R for drug use, language and some strong sexuality
Running Time: 99
Date: 05/10/2001

Harvard Man (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Old School

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

James Toback is certainly among the more interesting filmmakers working today. He remains absolutely truthful and independent -- viciously so. When his films look into the dark side, it's not with a youthful longing, but with grim hard-lived experience.

I haven't seen some of his earlier films, the highly regarded Fingers or his screenplay for The Gambler, but his Bugsy screenplay was the reason that movie worked so well. His Two Girls and a Guy featured a tour-de-force performance from Robert Downey Jr. in a fluid and effortless single-setting film, and his most recent film, Black and White fearlessly took on racial taboos with mixed results.

His newest film, Harvard Man, which opens today at the Roxie, is both more coherent and more intense. It starts with a very basic crime story, in which a Harvard student named Alan Jensen (Adrian Grenier) throws a basketball game in order to secure $100,000 to help his parents find a new house (it was destroyed in a Kansas tornado).

The $100,000 comes from his girlfriend, Cindy Bandaloni (Sarah Michelle Gellar), the daughter of a mobster -- though she has him convinced that he's a legitimate businessman. Cindy gets the money by betting on Dartmouth to win and pulling in some $250,000 for herself in the process. ("Buffy" fans will be shocked to see how brutal Gellar allows herself to be.)

The problem comes when her father's gambling manager (Eric Stoltz, walking with a cane) and his beautiful girlfriend (Rebecca Gayheart) turn out to be FBI agents. Things get worse when Alan drops three hits of acid concocted by a chemistry major friend.

Gambling and throwing a basketball game for money isn't a new plot, and in fact Toback himself used it in Black and White. But Toback's deranged immediacy makes it seem fresh again. He accomplishes this by a brilliant display of smash-and-grab editing, violently tossing us back and forth between two events at once, sometimes swinging back and forth in time as well as place.

One particularly effective sequence features a Harvard philosophy teacher (Joey Lauren Adams), who also happens to be sleeping with Alan. Toback cuts back and forth between her class lecture and her discussion with Alan in bed -- two different takes on the philosophy of life.

But the movie's most bravura sequence has to be Alan's acid trip. I've never taken the drug myself, but this certainly has to be the most brutal and convincing acid trip ever filmed (it puts the one in New Best Friend to utter shame). As he runs around, somehow managing to avoid capture by the FBI agents, he witnesses people's facial features moving around (including -- in a weird cameo -- Al Franken's), and their voices begin building up in his head -- phrases caught up in an endless loop and rushing around, mixing together in a horrifying cacophony.

For some, Toback may wrap up his story up a little too neatly (how did Alan manage to find the perfect doctor to help him during his trip?), but an eerie final shot adds enough ambiguity to keep viewers guessing.

Harvard Man does not run you over the coals like Requiem for a Dream -- it's not really about drugs in particular. It's not really about basketball or gangsters or Harvard either. The acid doctor explains that as humans, we build up our identity so slowly and over such a long period of time that we might not even notice it. We get impatient. I think that's the movie's key. To do what you can to maximize your blip of existence in this world. How often does a crime movie come with an idea like that -- or in fact any ideas at all?

DVD Details: For some reason, this DVD has quickly made its way to bargain bins all across the country, which means that adventurous viewers can check it out for only a few dollars. James Toback provides a commentary track.

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