Harvard Man


Rating 4

Written and directed by James Toback

Starring Adrien Grenier,
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Joey Lauren Adams, Eric Stoltz, Rebecca Gayheart and John Neville

“The money to make ‘Harvard Man’ came into place after she came aboard, but not once did she try to exploit her centrality to the financing of the movie. A lot of times in cases like this, actors will be quick to point out on the first day of shooting that they’re the reason the film got financing and that it’s their show... Not so with Sarah, and she was well aware that she was the deciding factor in getting the film’s $6 million budget approved.”
James Toback

“I made ‘Harvard Man’ for personal reasons. I wanted to challenge myself; I wanted to work with Jim. And I had a great time.”
Sarah Michelle Gellar

James Toback is a New York-based independent filmmaker whose first film (as a scriptwriter) was made in 1974. He has subsequently followed an erratic career as a writer and director. His single brush with the mainstream was his script for ‘Bugsy’, but he is probably most celebrated for his collaborations with the electrifying actor Robert Downey Jr on films such as ‘The Pick-up Artist’ and ‘Black and White’. Toback has his supporters, but he has never really been a consistent critics’ favourite and much of his career has been pursued in semi-obscurity.

Sarah Michelle Gellar is a fan of his films. Allegedly against the advice of her agent, she helped to resurrect ‘Harvard Man’, a surreal autobiographical film script that was once given the green light with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. When DiCaprio pulled out, having been cast in ‘Titanic’, the film was shelved.

Toback, who has been described as a compulsive gambler, a theme of several of his films, and once taught English at the City College of New York, loosely based the script on his experiences in the mid 1960’s when he was studying at Harvard for a degree in philosophy. Specifically, it is based on his drug experimentation. He suffered a severe psychotic episode after ingesting a huge quantity of LSD to find out what would happen. Into this autobiographical theme, he adds a surreal subplot about a tornado in Kansas (the reference to ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is obvious), promiscuous sexual behaviour, illegal gambling, the fixing of a college basketball game, and various shenanigans involving the FBI and the Mafia. Gellar plays Cindy Bandolini, the dangerously amoral daughter of a notorious Mafia boss.

The film was finally released in America in May 2002, one month prior to the release of the first ‘Scooby Doo’ film, and had a box office gross of just over $56,000. It remains, in my opinion, possibly the best film Gellar has made to date.

“For me, it wasn't kinky, it was awkward. Jim’s movies are sexually free… but he never asked me to push the line. He was always incredibly respectful. I’m not in a place where I’m comfortable doing nudity… What’s sexy is when sex is left to the imagination. I love when it’s implied. I roll my eyes and yawn at gratuitous sex.”
Sarah Michelle Gellar

The actual plot is outrageously far-fetched, but it doesn’t purport to be anything else and is filmed with all the usual Toback trademarks: eccentric editing, split-screen multi-scenes, uneven pacing, sketchy characterisation, weird story structuring and bizarre dialogue centred around philosophical discourse. It’s what happens after the plot has been established that is really surreal. The film begins to concentrate on Alan’s (the lead character based on Toback) acid trip.

The world as he sees it becomes a nightmare of melting faces, figures walking out of paintings and becoming real and constant swirling voices in his head that multiply and grow into an unbearable cacophony of sound. While this happens, the existing plot continues to unfold. He is being pursued by the FBI, two comical Mafia hitmen, Cindy (Gellar) and Chesney (his philosophy lecturer and lover). Everything is strange and fragmented, intended to heighten and emphasise Alan’s descent into drug-induced temporary insanity.

Toback seems to have deliberately cast the film with several actors who are unsuited to their roles – and he provides them with idiosyncratic personality traits and places them in entirely implausible scenarios. For instance, Joey Lauren Adams is not the first person you might think of to play a philosophy lecturer at Harvard University and Sarah Michelle Gellar doesn’t immediately come to mind as perfect casting for the daughter of a Mafia boss. To emphasise this even more, Toback cast Gianni Russo, who appeared in the first two ‘Godfather’ films, as her father. Eric Stoltz and Rebecca Gayheart are the most unlikely FBI agents this side of David Duchovny’s transvestite character in ‘Twin Peaks’ and the jittery Adrian Grenier doesn’t exactly have an obvious physique for a star basketball player, even at college level.

Many film critics were hostile towards the film and pointed to the casting as evidence that Toback is a hopeless and wilful incompetent. Others applauded him for the bravery of his casting, observing that it worked to the advantage of the film because it confounds the expectations of the audience and is suited to the surreal and improbable scenario into which the characters had been placed.

I think ‘Harvard Man’ is genuinely a quite brilliant film, although I fully appreciate that it would not be to all tastes. As I’ve already mentioned, it is probably the best film Gellar has made so far, although not necessarily my favourite. However, I have watched it on half-a-dozen occasions and I continue to come away impressed every time.


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