Harvard Man

on May 17, 2002 by Sheri Linden
   Writer-director and sometimes provocateur James Toback's new film is a nonmoralistic cautionary tale about the search for transcendence and the role of drugs, for some, in that search. Steeped in existentialist philosophy and matters of identity, choice and responsibility, "Harvard Man" achieves a cartoonish yet exceedingly adult sensibility as its protagonist proceeds through often ludicrous plot twists. For those who accept the offbeat premise, the film ultimately delivers a satisfying dramatic exploration of the ways we create ourselves.

   Adrian Grenier ("The Adventures of Sebastian Cole") stars as Alan, the titular Ivy League student, a point guard on the school's basketball team and devotee of mind-altering substances whose goal is to get "as far out as I can go." He's involved with two women: Holy Cross cheerleader Cindy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), whose father is a mob kingpin--which Alan refuses to believe until it's too late--and his philosophy professor, Chesney (Joey Lauren Adams), a sexy lecturer who keeps him at an emotional distance. Chesney adamantly advises against his plan to experiment with the LSD a chemistry major friend of Alan's has synthesized, using the original Sandoz formula. Before Alan can pursue his hallucinatory goal, though, he's faced with his Midwestern parents' loss of their home in a tornado, which leads him to ask Cindy's "businessman" father (Gianni Russo) for a $100,000 loan.

   Though Alan's single-minded determination to help his parents is never quite convincing, the story manages to engage, building suspense as our hero's progress is increasingly obstructed by illegal gambling schemes, sexual liaisons, double crosses, an FBI sting and the high-dose acid trip that peaks as danger hits a crisis point. To convey Alan's state of mind as the drug takes hold, Toback employs visual and aural effects that feel right, rather than gimmicky, replete with Gauguin prints that come to life and a suitably disturbing, schizophrenic cacophony of voices. Though there's a stiffness to some of the early scenes, particularly between Alan and his parents, the story moves forward with a self-assured momentum, propelled by Bach excerpts throughout. Despite a lack of psychological depth, the unpredictable characters never fail to fascinate. Grenier is a likable searcher, while Gellar is perfectly cast as the daddy's girl who doesn't think twice about selling out her boyfriend. Eric Stoltz, clearly having a blast, is terrific as the mob boss' right-hand man with a hidden agenda. The story closes on a surprisingly poignant note, leaving viewers with challenging questions to ponder.    Starring Adrian Grenier, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Joey Lauren Adams, Eric Stoltz, Rebecca Gayheart and Al Franken. Directed and written by James Toback. Produced by Daniel Bigel and Michael Mailer. A Cowboy release. Drama. Rated R for drug use, language and some strong sexuality. Running time: 98 min.

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