The flop I will be discussing today is a James Toback movie about an intense homemade intellectual with a rapacious, regularly satiated sexual appetite who's torn between the dictates of the heart, the intellect and the Id. Its soundtrack alternates between classical music and disposable pop junk. It prominently features gambling on sports, parental obligations, sexual promiscuity, bisexuality, drug use, powerful older mobsters, risky and transgressive behavior, unexpected, comically incongruous celebrity cameos, and more pretentious blather about the meaning of life and, like, man's place in the universe and shit, than the average philosophy department mixer. Here's one last clue: the hero's quest for deep existential wisdom could easily pass for a never-ending, suspiciously successful campaign to get laid constantly. Can you guess which film I'm talking about? As you've probably figured out by now, that's a trick question, as I could be talking about half of Toback's monomaniacal oeuvre.
I happen to be discussing the 2001 boondoggle Harvard Man and while it'd be tempting to call it the ultimate James Toback movie, that description applies to just about every film the man makes. Toback isn't a compromise-happy "one for them, one for me" kind of guy. He's more of a "one for me, a second one for me, and while I'm at it how about a third one for me as well?" obsessive. Why bother alternating personal projects with genre films or studio assignments when every film you make, as a director at least, can be a deeply personal labor of (self) love torn straight from the innermost recesses of the soul?
Still, even for this most self-indulgent of auteurs, Harvard Man represents some seriously wacky Tobacky. The film's genesis reportedly began with an eight-day long acid trip Toback experienced in 1965. Having suffered through a good 15 minutes of Toback's audio commentary, I think the Partnership For a Drug Free America should run an ad campaign positing Harvard Man as a harrowing cautionary tale that proves conclusively that prolonged exposure to LSD can lead to permanent, irreversible pretentiousness and/or unforgivable jackassery later in life. I can only take so much pretension before I become physically ill, and Toback was definitely testing the boundaries of my tolerance for self-absorbed horseshit.
Judging by his commentary, Toback genuinely seems to think he made a deep, profound art film, not a deranged B-movie with laughable intellectual pretensions. Leonardo DiCaprio flirted with making the film one of his first post-Titanic projects, but when he wanted too much money they went with an actor with a roughly equivalent level of talent and gravity: the dumb, good-looking guy who would star in Entourage (Adrian Grenier, who should not be confused with the dumb guy from Entourage who's Matt Dillon's brother or the dumb guy from Entourage who's the better-looking dumb guy's gofer).
An amusingly miscast Grenier here plays Toback's surrogate, a Harvard basketball player/philosophy student more interesting in testing the limits of consciousness and exploring what Terry Southern called "sense derangement" than in hitting jumpers or acing his finals. When Grenier's corn-fed Kansas parents lose their home in a tornado, Grenier agrees to help fix a basketball game for girlfriend Sarah Michelle Gellar's mobster dad in exchange for $100,000.
Eric Stoltz and Rebecca Gayheart co-star as swinging FBI agents engaged in a kinky threesome with sexed-up 28-year-old philosophy professor Joey Lauren Adams, who lectures hilariously about Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard in a bored, flat, disconnected baby-doll high-pitched monotone that suggests she learned the script phonetically. Adams is having an affair with Grenier and worries desperately about his LSD usage because, in a masterstroke of subtlety and restraint, Adams' mom's brain totally got fried from LSD usage back in the day. I can only admire Toback's restraint in not including a scene where Adams tearfully discusses the heartbreaking moment her LSD-crazed mother prepared what is known in hysterical drug-movie parlance as a "California Club Sandwich"–a human baby cooked and served like a thanksgiving turkey.
Having established an appropriately hysterical tone of drugged-up hyper-ridiculousness, Toback then pushes the film way off the deep end by giving Grenier an epic, literally 20 to 30-minute long acid freakout where faces and bodies twist and contort like figures in a Francis Bacon paintings and Grenier meets and greets special guest star Al Franken.
Cinematic acid freakouts have a long, inglorious tradition of unintentional laughter and hilariously low-fi approximations of altered states, but Harvard Man is such a mess that its epic acid sequence qualifies as its most convincing and entertaining element. Grenier may be laughably unconvincing as a thinker of deep thoughts and a taker of important shots, but he's surprisingly easy to buy as an LSD-besotted space cadet contemplating a vast cosmic void.
At this point, Grenier contemplates what passes in the film as a heady cerebral conceit: what if an acid trip never ended? And what if instead of us taking acid, acid took us? Wouldn't that be, like, trippy? With a lot of filmmakers, there comes a point where a distinctive style becomes a straightjacket. For me, Toback reached that point about halfway through Harvard Man. For all his uncompromising conviction, Toback seems disconcertingly content to make the same overstuffed, lurid melodrama over and over again. For all its bad craziness, Harvard Man is surprisingly dull. It's telling that the film never developed a sizable cult following despite boasting nearly all the elements of cult classics.
The problem perhaps is that Toback never stopped being a gifted prodigy. He never quite made it beyond the adolescent phase of his creative and intellectual development, and Harvard Man reeks of adolescent self-satisfaction. I wrote in an earlier post that I liked Toback because he's so full of shit, not despite it. But after suffering through just a fraction of his audio commentary, it seems apparent that he's the kind of deluded bullshit artist who actually believes the gibberish he's spewing.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success:Fiasco