Of all the emotions that surged through me after the completion of the new comedy “Stealing Harvard–disgust, pity, confusion, relief–none shook me with as much force as the wonderful sensation of gratitude that dominated my reaction. Gratitude that the debacle had finally, after countless plot twists, character shifts, and inane episodes of male spooning, crossed the finish line; gratitude that I would no longer have to watch fine actors like Dennis Farina, Jason Lee, and Megan Mullally lower themselves so willingly into a stinky rest stop toilet (not literally); and most of all, gratitude that Mr. Tom Green may have finally slammed the last nail into the coffin of his already half-a-decade-too-long excuse for a career.
In addition to gratitude, I felt a profound disappointment that a screenwriter as talented as Peter Tolan could so thoroughly lose touch with the essential foundations of the comedy genre. For entertainment to be funny, it either has to bridge the gap between the set-up predicament and the actions taken to resolve that predicament, or it must do the polar opposite: cross the line into a world of complete irreverence and inanity that does not ask its audience to consider logical human behavior.
“Stealing Harvard” chooses the former without regard for the naturally imposed limitations that result. In the film, Jason Lee plays John Plummer, an assistant at a store that sells home hospital equipment and is wittily named Homespital (get it?). After the tragic death of his parents when he was only 18, John thinks his life may finally be on track after his fianc*e Elaine (Leslie Mann) informs him that they have saved enough money to finally marry and buy their dream house.
Unfortunately, an obstacle must present itself for any comic hilarity to possibly ensue. Soon after hearing the good news, John visits his sexually adventurous sister Patty (Megan Mullally) only to discover (with the help of a very conveniently made videotape) that he once promised his niece Norreen a large chunk of financial assistance were she ever to be accepted to a university. As it turns out, she just got into Harvard. As it also turns out, the amount of money she needs to finalize her future is identical to the sum John and Elaine have tucked away for their own plans.
So John turns to his best friend Duff (Tom Green) to help him get the necessary greenbacks, and here is where the film’s potential comic payoff, the resolution of a sticky situation, falls apart. John understandably does not want to let his sweet, idealistic niece down on such a firm and videotaped promise, but no rational human being would ever turn so suddenly into a hardened criminal to reach such ends. The hapless duo rob a liquor store, enlist the aide of a violent thug, and invade the home of a deeply disturbed widower who makes some rather unpleasant demands of his intruders (hence the male spooning).
The film bases its story and builds its heart around real human concerns like money, family, and friendship, yet the subsequent narrative yields no comic fertility because the audience cannot comprehend or identify with the characters’ methods. I am not asking for complete and utter logic and realism, just something a little more human and a little more basic, a comic cause-and-effect that loosely connects to planet Earth. I really cannot even think of a better way the initial premise could have evolved, other than the film not being made in the first place.
To pinpoint one culprit in this unfunny romp is unfair, but I am going to do it anyway. When criticizing a film for its deficient human logic, one must immediately blame Tom Green, who, all kidding aside, cannot possibly be human. It is so deeply immersed in its erratic nerd persona, it never even considers adapting its comic instincts to its surroundings. In the mid- to late nineties, Green’s act initially worked on some bizarre level. Whether sucking cow utters on his amusing self-titled show or dangling a mouse over his mouth to tempt a snake in the hilarious “Road Trip,” for a year or so he was so unusual you could not help but privately snicker.
Today, “Stealing Harvard” proves that the persona has lost its always-tentative novelty. Watch Green slam himself into an unbreakable window, and observe how easy it is to repress laughter. Watch him inexplicably lick and caress a rectal toothbrush (why, Tom, why?), and notice how hard it is to suppress nausea. He is a breathlessly ridiculous anomaly in an already poorly constructed laugher, making little to no effort to work with and possibly complement costar Lee, fighting fiercely to stand out in a movie that clearly favors camouflage.
By the time it comes to its implausible and convoluted climax, the movie has failed so deeply that no possible resolution holds any promise for redemption. The director opts to reunite all his colorless characters in a breathless farce of mistaken identity and chance encounter that is reminiscent of the British door-slamming comic form. By this point, the film has debauched so many wonderful comic traditions, what’s one more for the road!