James Toback's in-your-face style may be an acquired taste, but he's one of the more exciting American directors working today.
He displays plenty of two-fisted panache in "Harvard Man," a morality tale that delivers the same mix of base and lofty impulses that Toback brought to his last two films, "Black and White" and "Two Girls and a Guy." In his latest film, Toback offers a complex, borderline campy, and oddly entertaining study of modern moral dilemmas.
In signature Toback style, "Harvard" (this film, unlike many set on the august campus, was actually shot there) is a place where a maturing young stud can get his hands on pure LSD as well as his smart and hot-to-trot philosophy prof. It's where Al Franken, on the banks of the Charles River, delivers a wild soliloquy on the lifelong merits of a Harvard education. And it's where, with temptation and moral cowardice vying equally with intellect and ethics for a young man's soul, a true self can be developed and refined.
As with "Black and White," it's a basketball player who is compromised. Alan Jensen (Adrian Grenier, who starred in "Cecil B. Demented") is a point guard on the Harvard Crimson who throws a game with Dartmouth in order to collect $100,000 from his girlfriend's Mafia-boss father. Alan's reasons are noble on the surface: The money is for his parents, who lost their uninsured Kansas home in a tornado (!). But this is a Toback movie. Alan's deeper motives are more complicated. A philosophy major, he's exploring, somewhat narcissistically, life's big questions. He wants the thrill of the risk, the taste of danger. The same darker impulses that lead him to his decision to throw the game also lead Alan-against the advice of his professor/lover (Joey Lauren Adams)- to ingest a massive dose of LSD manufactured by a friend in a campus lab.
The acid-tripping sequence, apparently based on Toback's own experience with LSD in the 1960s, is funny and creepy at once, with Alan haunted by a cacophony of voices and phrases. This is his descent into madness, where faces distort as if melting, where-in one of the most inspired hallucinations ever depicted in a film-a woman steps out of a Gauguin painting. Drugs, gambling, sex; all are mind-bending experiences, fraught with ecstasy and danger that lead Alan to the psychological and moral edge.
Some of Toback's resolutions are a bit convenient, but he's cleverly packaged his story as both a coming-of-age tale and a suspense thriller, with a few bows to genre conventions.
Two performances in pivotal roles leap from the film. Sarah Michelle Gellar gives a juicy and chilling performance as Alan's girlfriend, a Holy Cross cheerleader who has crossed way over to the dark side. As the philosophy professor who is both maternal and sexual, Joey Lauren Adams delivers a surprisingly resonant performance. Her character's keen intellect and understanding are matched by her own lurid attraction to base behavior.
Like them or not, Toback's films deliver a lot of bang for the buck. He's one of the few serious and original directors who can mix group sex and talk of existentialism; a fast-paced basketball sequence cut with scenes of Mafia members plotting a hit; and an in-class philosophy lecture stylishly edited with Alan's memories of a contradictory in-bed discussion. "Harvard Man" complements "Black and White" and "Two Girls and a Guy" as Toback's trilogy of unsentimental, occasionally grandiose moralizing, of the human search for a high in the broadest sense and, ultimately, as a quest for redemption.
Directed by James Toback; written by James Toback; photographed by Daniel M. Ferrara; edited by Suzy Elmiger; music by Ryan Shore; production designed by Rupert Lazarus; produced by Daniel Bigel, Mike Mailer. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: R (drug use, language and some strong sexuality).
Alan Jensen--Adrian Grenier
Cindy Bandolini--Sarah Michelle Gellar
Chesney Cort--Joey Lauren Adams