Harvard Man  (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

James Toback is an independent filmmaker who doesn't really follow the typical indy path. This film doesn't really try to tell a simplified story with personal passion or niche appeal, for example. This plot, on paper, is just as contrived and silly as anything Joe Eszterhas or anyone else in Hollywood ever penned. If you're sick of mind-reading CEO vampires from outer space who fall in love with SEC investigators with mafia dads, Toback is not your go-to guy for an antidote.

Here is the summary:

Step 1: A Harvard student needs $100,000 because his parents' house has been swept away by a tornado, and they can't replace it. Luckily for him (1) he is the point guard on the Harvard basketball team (2) his girlfriend is the daughter of a mob boss. Therefore, he agrees to shave a bunch of points against Dartmouth in return for a hundred grand of mob money.

Step 2: Unfortunately for Mr Basketball, the mafia princess lays off her action on a bookie who is actually an undercover FBI agent. The FBI figures out why she wants to bet so much (her boyfriend's insider position), and goes after the basketball player.

Step 3: Since the mafia head can't afford to let Mr Basketball turn state's evidence against him, which is what the FBI really wants, he sends a couple of (very dumb) hit men to kill the lad.

Step 4: As luck (or contrivance) would have it, Mr Basketball is also sleeping with one of his teachers, who loves him and is a highly sexual creature. She gets into a messy multi-person sexual liaison with the FBI agents and allows the kid to photograph it, which therefore allows him to blackmail the agents into stopping the investigation. When the investigation is closed, the mafia head calls off his hit men.

Pretty believable, eh? He is sleeping with two woman, one of whom controls all the crime on the Eastern seaboard, the other of whom controls all the FBI agents in the same territory.


Female: dark, remote breast exposure from Polly Shannon - no action from Rebecca Gayheart, Buffy, or Joey Lauren Adams.

an unknown actress does frontal nudity in a drug-induced imagination of a painting come to life

You think the plot is silly, how about the casting? Start with Joey Lauren Adams as a professor of philosophy at Harvard! At age 28!  And it could have been worse. Much worse. Toback really wanted Leo Dicaprio to play Mr Basketball. I suppose he also wanted Jennifer Tilly to play the head of the Harvard physics department.

While the individual elements sound like a typical screwball Hollywood movie, it is the details that differentiate it:

  • Toback has always been fascinated by the process of juxtaposing the powerful and the street people, then sitting back and let them all riff. In Black and White, he had them come together in Central Park. In this film, they come together along the banks of the Charles: mafia hit men, philosophy professors, FBI agents, basketball players, and the eager parents of future students. Once he has assembled the pieces, Toback weaves them into a jokey, cynical overview in which nothing is ever what we expect it to be. For example, the film begins with a lecture on how people stereotype Italians by thinking that they must all be gangsters. Then the film proceeds to show us several Italian characters, 100% of whom are gangsters. The basketball players discuss Wittgenstein. The philosophy professors and the FBI agents discuss sex. Everyone can be bought. The characters who seem to be the least powerful end up wielding the most power.
  • For some reason necessary to the screenwriter's vision, the basketball player is a serious druggie. Before the Holy Cross game, we see him smoking a joint big enough to choke both Cheech and Chong, as well as the enter Rastafarian sect. Before the Dartmouth game, he took enough acid to turn Rush Limbaugh humble and liberal. The film makes no attempt to explain how Mr Basketball can play in this condition. Frankly, I don't know why he needed to throw that second game. He barely understood that he was in a game in the first place. Unfortunately for the audience, his drug-altered state is shown from his P.O.V. with the usual movie clichés - fish-eye lens, Kai's Power Goo distortions, slowed audio. you know the drill. These convoluted perceptions occupy a lot of running time. Way, way too much, as I see it.

So what is it, a mainstream Hollywood contrivance or a quirky independent? Film Journal International summed it up perfectly:

 "A frustrating 'tweener' -- too slick, contrived and exploitative for the art houses and too cynical, small and decadent for the malls."

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen anamorphic or full screen version

  • director's commentary

If you read film reviews for sheer enjoyment and schadenfreude, I recommend the literate and nasty review from Film Threat. Very funny, and right on the money.

There were rumors that the uncut scenes showed lots and lots of flesh from Buffy. None of that is visible in the widescreen transfer, and there are no deleted scenes on the DVD. Buffy is in two sex scenes. In the first, she may be naked, but the scene is edited so that none of her naughty bits are visible. In the second, she is outdoors, fully dressed.

Tuna's Thoughts

Harvard Man (2001) was created by writer/director James Toback (Bugsy, The Pick-Up Artist,  Black and White). It opened in San Francisco and died instantly, and is now available on DVD.

I saw it as a plot-driven film. Harvard basketball star and philosophy major Adrian Grenier is living a life of excess, with drugs and two women, one his college professor, Joey Lauren Adams, and the other a Holy Cross cheerleader, Sarah Michelle Geller, who happens to be the daughter of a major Mafia figure. When his parents Kansas home is destroyed by a tornado, he wants to find $100K for them to rebuild, and ends up asking Geller's dad for a loan. The dad turns him down, but, on the way home, Geller explains that his dad didn't want to lose face in front of his men, but will give him the money. Oh, and by the way, he needs to shave points off of the next basketball game.

Grenier has majored in philosophy to try to discover what, if anything, the real him is like. A chemistry major offers him the quick method of enlightenment. She has synthesized LSD, and gives him a massive dose. Geller is scamming Grenier, and is actually betting on the game, and giving him a fraction of the money she will win. Unfortunately, she places the bet with two undercover FBI agents masquerading as bookies to bust her father. So Grenier finds himself under the FBI's thumb, facing hit men sent by Geller's father, and on a seriously bad trip. I would go on, but it already seems too preposterous to be true.

Then I listened to the directors commentary, and discovered that it was not a plot-driven film at all, but a semi-autobiographical study about nearly ruining your life dropping acid in a search for truth. Learning that didn't make me like the film any better.

Trivia: an Unknown Italian actress steps nude out of a Gauguin painting as part of an LSD hallucination. The director looked all over for a Polynesian actress to use for the part, and couldn't find one with a suitable face. Finally, he found the Italian actress, but she had shaved pubs, and he needed a thick black bush. His make-up department said, "No problem, we'll put a merkin on her." Not only was he surprised that public wigs existed, but also that they had an official name. So the unknown actress shows breasts, and a merkin.

The Critics Vote

  • Roger Ebert 3/4, filmcritic.com 3.5/5

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: made for a modest $5 million dollars, it grossed $13 million in the USA despite never appearing on as many as 300 screens. It set all box office records in Mexico.
  • As suggested by the "tweener" quote above, other independent filmmakers found the film disappointing. Their official voice, Film Threat, was not kind.


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Scoopy says, "C-. Really not a very good movie, but the offbeat dialogue and the cynical world-view may hold your attention, if you have an inclination toward such things". Tuna says, "In his review, Roger Ebert praises Toback for taking risks in his films, which might explain some critical acceptance. Personally, I found it a total chore to watch, with many of the plot points too silly to accept. C-."

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