Harvard Man

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Harvard Man

If independent spirit were an inherent mark of quality, James Toback's Harvard Man—a go-for-broke apotheosis of one man's obsessions with sex, drugs, gambling, philosophy, and filmmaking—would rank with the best work of John Cassavetes. Few American writer-directors possess such an unmistakable vision, much less have the freedom to express it, but the disconnect between Toback's world and the real one seems to grow larger with every project. In the past, Toback has done better by filtering his aggressive temperament through an equally forceful personality, such as Harvey Keitel in 1978's superb Fingers, an eerily appropriate Robert Downey Jr. in Two Girls And A Guy, and Warren Beatty with Toback's fine Bugsy script. But with the fey, passive Adrian Grenier as his alter ego, Harvard Man channels Toback in his purest form, which will probably be a treat for auteurists and a headache for just about everyone else. Inspired in part by an eight-day LSD trip Toback had in the mid-'60s, the film opens with a frenzied statement of purpose, colliding split-screen images of raucous sex and basketball warm-ups with buzzing layers of natural sound, pop music, and a Bach concerto. A typically amorous Toback hero, Grenier shirks his game-day duties as the starting point guard for the Harvard basketball team in favor of a dorm-room quickie with Sarah Michelle Gellar, a cheerleader for the opposing team. When his parents' Iowa farmhouse is leveled by a tornado, Grenier turns to Gellar, the daughter of a notorious mob kingpin, to raise the $100,000 needed to move them from the floor of a high-school gymnasium to a rebuilt home. In a scheme lifted straight from the weakest subplot in Toback's Black And White, Gellar arranges for him to get the money if he shaves points off the spread in an upcoming game against Dartmouth. The improbable sequence of events that follows is made more absurd by deliberate miscasting in key roles, including the kewpie-voiced Joey Lauren Adams (Chasing Amy) as a philosophy professor who sleeps with her students, and Rebecca Gayheart and Eric Stoltz as swinging FBI agents. Grenier's wayward journey lays the groundwork for Toback's big payoff, a wildly stylized acid trip that marries the fisheye distortions of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas with an aggressive chorus of voices that wage war over the young man's head. Toback probably comes as close as any filmmaker could to communicating what an LSD freak-out is really like, by trapping the audience in an extended state of sensory overload. But his avant-garde flourishes are excruciating to withstand, and even harder to accept given the uncertain balance of camp and high seriousness in the rest of the film. An essayist in search of a thesis, Toback skips anxiously from one thought to the next, but never pauses long enough to form any ideas.

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