You have to feel sorry for Harvard. Sure, it’s one of the greatest universities in the world. Everybody knows the name. It’s got a superb faculty and some of the brightest students around. Its endowment dwarfs that of virtually every other campus and its library has few peers. But all of that isn’t of much consequence, because poor Harvard has suffered terribly lately where it really counts–in the movies. In “Legally Blonde,” its law school admission committee approved the application of an apparent airhead, simply on the basis of her looks. And in “Harvard Man,” one of its smartest undergrads was depicted as a drug user who also threw intercollegiate basketball games (a major joke concerned the ineptitude of its team) while bedding one of his professors.
Those instances, however, were picayune beside the latest cinematic indignity Harvard must bear: having its name in the title of a Tom Green movie. Surely somebody in Cambridge has to give institutional assent to such things? If so, he’s not doing his job.
Actually, the plot of “Stealing Harvard” involves the school only in the most tangential way. Nebbish John Plummer (Jason Lee) once promised his niece Noreen (Tammy Blanchard) that he’d cover the cost if she got into college, and just as he’s about to marry his long-time sweetheart Elaine (Leslie Mann) and put a slowly-saved $30,000 down payment on their dream house, the girl announces that she’s been accepted at Harvard and he has to come up with the first year’s tuition–$29,879. Desperate to please both his fiancé and his niece, John asks his doofus buddy Duff (Green) for help, and before long the Two Stooges are engaged in a series of idiotic and illegal schemes to raise the dough. As you would expect, things repeatedly go wrong, but a happy ending is in the offing.
The picture’s not as painful as you might expect, but it is flat, shapeless and largely devoid of laughs. The material is threadbare even for the abbreviated 83-minute running-time, and most of the humor (based on such lovely topics as cross-dressing and doggie-goes-for-the-crotch gags) is typically crude. And, of course, it pretty much becomes torture whenever Green is on screen doing his solo shtick; he really does lack the most rudimentary sense of comic timing or delivery. The irritation he engenders was compounded in “Freddy Got Fingered,” where he was the absolute center of attention (and responsible for writing and directing the surreal mess, too), but it’s quite serious here, too; Green’s Duff is all too convincingly stupid and annoying. On the other hand, Lee continues to demonstrate an agreeably laid-back screen presence, and he provides a relatively quiet, amiable center to things, even when he’s compelled to don a dress and blonde wig. The pairing was probably intended to complement the particular qualities of each, but in the event Lee’s sheepishness is mostly overwhelmed by Green’s abrasiveness, with unfortunate results. There are plenty of well-known characters actors in supporting roles–Dennis Farina, Richard Jenkins, John C. McGinley and Seymour Cassel are a stellar group–but their efforts are all sabotaged by the limpness of the material they’re given.
Of course, things might have been different if Peter Tolan’s script were sharper and less coarse, or if Bruce McCulloch’s direction were less lax. But “Stealing Harvard” would still stand or fall on the quality of its two stars, and with TG providing half of the equation, it doesn’t stand a chance; even Greenless it still wouldn’t be much more than relentlessly mediocre. Hollywood clobbers Harvard again, and this time there’s no need for cheating to determine the score.