- The Washington Times - Friday, September 13, 2002

A little of Tom Green goes a long, long way. The comedian's brief turn in "Road Trip" (2000) squeezed his like-it or despise-it persona into an actual character with funny repercussions.

Giving him the reins of a feature film, as was the case with last year's "Freddy Got Fingered," proved as calamitous as granting Mariah Carey her Screen Actors Guild card.

In "Stealing Harvard," a slight, stupid comedy co-starring Jason Lee, Mr. Green ratchets down his R-rated proclivities but still manages to try our patience.

Blame the Farrelly brothers (1998's "There's Something About Mary," 1996's "Kingpin") for making stupidity the backbone of the modern slapstick comedy. Those films, though, were smart enough to celebrate their cerebrally challenged heroes.

"Harvard" cannot fall back on clever wordplay or inspired slapstick.

Instead, it lets Mr. Green be himself.

That means watching the goateed slacker scarf melted cheese and fend off a stumpy pooch's amorous advances.

Essentially, Mr. Lee is the lead in "Harvard," starring as a beleaguered uncle trying to pay his niece's way to the eponymous Ivy League school.

His character, a low-level salesman at an equipment superstore for the handicapped, appears content bordering on bliss as the action opens. His bank account has finally hit $30,000, the magic number his squeaky-voiced fiancee (Leslie Mann) deemed critical to buy their own home and tie the knot. Although his job doesn't thrill him, it puts him in good stead with his boss, his fiancee's overprotective dad (Dennis Farina in full rant mode).

A promise made long ago to pay for his niece Noreen's education, conveniently videotaped, comes back to haunt him when Noreen is accepted to Harvard University.

Should he use his money to buy his dream home or stay true to his word?

Enter Duff (Mr. Green), a gonzo landscaper with too much hair and a stupefied air that, sadly, cannot be blamed on hallucinogens. Duff convinces John to attempt a series of robberies in hopes of raising the cash.

Even the movie's thematic core crumbles upon inspection. Noreen says she earned a batch of student loans to defray her education's costs. That, combined with her family's economic plight she calls home a fixer-upper trailer should mean her first year's bill shouldn't be anywhere near $30,000.

Mulling over the figures is preferable to paying attention to the proceedings, which includes not one but three set pieces featuring men in drag, comedy's surest sign of desperation. The deepest sigh, though, should be reserved for how the film's financial matters are put to bed. It's as if screenwriter Peter Tolan realized he had another obligation and let an intern pen the conclusion.

Mr. Green, only a click or two away from his standard, zonked out persona, remains a grossly undisciplined talent, his primary instincts irredeemably juvenile.

Comedy, a la Mr. Green, requires an actor to fix his gaze on an unseen object away from the other performers, then repeat a phrase two or three times with varying points of emphasis.

It makes Adam Sandler's comic tics appear gargantuan in contrast.

Mr. Lee, usually relegated to a supporting player, manages not to embarrass himself as the film's sad sack straight man. He deserves a better launching pad toward meatier roles.

Several high-profile bit players earn their stripes amid the soggy humor.

Director Bruce McCulloch coaxes an unnerving turn from John C. McGinley as a persistent detective, fresh from his good notices on NBC's "Scrubs."

"Will & Grace's" Megan Mullally pilfers some laughs as Noreen's libidinous mom, but stealing scenes here amounts to a petty crime.

Coming on the heels of Mr. McCulloch's little-seen "Dog Park" (1998) and "Superstar" (1999), it's safe to project his directing career along the same downward spiral as Mr. Green's acting prospects.


*1/2

TITLE: "Stealing Harvard"

RATING: PG-13 (slapstick violence, sexual situations, drug references)

CREDITS: Directed by Bruce McCulloch

RUNNING TIME: 83 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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