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With: Jason Lee, Tom Green, Leslie Mann, Dennis Farina, Megan Mullally, John C. McGinley, Tammy Blanchard, Chris Penn, Richard Jenkins, Seymour Cassel
Written by: Martin Hynes, Peter Tolan
Directed by: Bruce McCulloch
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language and drug references
Running Time: 82
Date: 09/13/2002

Stealing Harvard (2002)

0 Stars

Flunking Out

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I wrestled with myself for a bit after seeing Stealing Harvard as I tried to articulate how bad it really is. In the end, I decided to award it no stars simply because it contains not one redeeming quality. Actor Jason Lee normally has an appealing kind of laid-back, creeping charm, as seen in films like Chasing Amy, Almost Famous and Big Trouble. But from Stealing Harvard, you'd think he was just a bad actor. But not the worst actor in the world -- that honor goes to Lee's co-star, Tom Green. I had to go all the way back to John Agar (Fort Apache, Tarantula) for someone nearly as bad, but Green makes even Agar look accomplished. Green seems to inhabit some other dimension -- one where he creates comedy that's funny only to himself. Not even Chris Penn or Seymour Cassel can rise above the mess. Can you imagine Cassel, who began his career in John Cassavetes films, taking his late friend and director to the premiere of this film? Cassavetes must be ready to rise from the dead to slap Cassel around and put him back in some good movies.

Here's the clincher: Stealing Harvard makes Dennis Farina look bad. Farina, a Chicago character actor best known for Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Snatch, could sound good reading the phone book. But the dialogue he has to read here makes him look and sound like a pathetic amateur. One scene has him driving along listening to hip-hop music, but the movie refuses to make a joke out of the obvious culture clash. It's more interested in trying to milk laughs out of Farina talking to his dog.

Briefly, the plot: Jason Lee stars as John Plummer, who has saved $30,000 with his irritating wife Elaine (Leslie Mann). Unfortunately, his niece (Tammy Blanchard) has been accepted to Harvard and is now calling in an old promise that John made about his paying for it. So he enlists his stupid friend Duff (Tom Green) to help him raise the money. They're open to trying anything, provided it doesn't make any sense.

We can blame it all on director Bruce McCulloch, a former member of the terminally unfunny Kids in the Hall and director of the terminally unfunny films Superstar and Dog Park. It doesn't help that McCulloch is working with screenwriter Peter Tolan, who was responsible for films such as My Fellow Americans and What Planet Are You From? as well as the hugely overrated Analyze This. The other writer on this project, Martin Hynes (George Lucas in the famous short film George Lucas in Love), is still too inexperienced to shoulder much of the blame. The film's dialogue is all pitched at the level of speeches and lectures -- a bit higher and more hectoring than normal conversation. The effect is that you nod off or become agitated. McCulloch lacks the skill to turn it down, nor can he shape a scene. Most of the scenes are edited together in a way that leaves you confused. I'm certain that several bad takes made it to the final cut. In addition, if you happen to stick around past the closing credits, you'll bear witness to the most soul-deadening, unfunny outtakes ever filmed.

Some movies can get by without being funny simply by structuring the scenes as if they were jokes: a setup, delivery and payoff. Stealing Harvard can't even do that much. Each scene immediately succumbs to gravity and plummets to earth. The climax, in which John, Elaine and Duff break into Elaine's father's office to steal his stash of cash, is a case in point. John and Elaine search the office for the cash, coming up empty-handed and growing increasingly frustrated. Instead of building suspense or creating a joke, the movie simply gives away the actual hiding place. Meanwhile, for no reason, Duff is downstairs trying to break a window to make the caper look like a burglary (never mind that he's trying to break the window from the inside). He keeps throwing things against the window and winds up slammed against the window himself, just before a dog latches onto his private parts.

I can't claim that Stealing Harvard reaches the level of badness that Green achieved with last year's Freddie Got Fingered. That movie was violently bad -- a series of slaps and sharp pokes in the eye. Stealing Harvard is more passively bad. Like a huge pile of excrement, it is foul smelling and dull. I just want it to go away. (If you want to see something stupid and funny at the same time, also starring Jason Lee, I recommend last year's underrated Heartbreakers.)

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