No one in "Stealing Harvard" is trying to pilfer the university, so one is left wondering what exactly the title means. Tellingly, the film went through five different titles (including "Say Uncle," "The Promise," and "Stealing Stanford") before settling on its final moniker. A curious indecision on the picture's name can only be accounted for its overall lack of inspiration. As a comedy, and one that stars Tom Green (2001's infamous "Freddy Got Fingered
"), no less, it is a relatively tame and mostly unfunny one that seems to have stolen the majority of its jokes from other movies that got to the punchline first.
John Plummer (Jason Lee) and his fiancee, Elaine (Leslie Mann), are overjoyed when they discover they have reached their financial goal of $30,000 in order to tie the knot and buy their own house. John's happy outlook degenerates to desperation, however, when he is reminded by his sassy trailer trash sister, Patty (Megan Mullally), and teenage niece, Noreen (Tammy Blanchard), of a promise he made years ago to pay for Noreen's college education. To make matters worse, Noreen's admittance into Harvard comes at a pretty big price: just over $29,000. Afraid to tell Elaine and crush her hopes, John turns to eccentric best friend Duff (Tom Green), who submerges him in one failed criminal attempt after the next in order to pocket Noreen's tuition money.
The general premise to "Stealing Harvard," directed by "Kids in the Hall" alum Bruce McCulloch (1999's "Superstar
"), had the obvious potential ripe for some outrageous comedic hijinks, but one would never guess such a thing while viewing the finished product. The jokey setpieces, which include an angry mutt attacking Duff's privates and a frequent robbery victim who turns the table on his assailants, forcing them to cross-dress and "spoon" with him, come off as stale and imitative rather than funny. At only 83 minutes (including an opening title sequence, end credits, and a 5-minute post-credits blooper reel), the film's lack of fresh material and repetitive plot machinations only become more glaringly apparent.
In my current "Writing for Visual Media" class at college, the professor has stated that, when writing a screenplay or making a movie, you should ask yourself if there is a clear driving force that will make audiences care about the characters and their plight. Screenwriter Peter Tolan (2001's "America's Sweethearts
") obviously missed this course because, had he held "Stealing Harvard" up to such close scrutiny, he would have dismantled the project at once and started over from scratch. In "Stealing Harvard," there are no characters to get involved with or care about, and the story they have found themselves in is scattershot, at best.
If anything, the agreeable cast do what they can. Jason Lee (2001's "Heartbreakers
"), in one of his first leading roles, has an amiably offbeat quality, but nowhere to go with it, as the put-upon John. Tom Green more or less portrays the wacky Duff as he does all his charactersoutlandish and freakish. He is somewhat more restrained here than he was in "Freddy Got Fingered
," but also not nearly as childishly amusing.
As Elaine, who may or may not have an Oedipus Complex with her controlling father and John's boss (Dennis Farina), Leslie Mann (2002's "Orange County
") brings a charm to her character mostly absent from the rest of the film. Mann could have gone over-the-top, playing her role with a certain shrill annoyance, but she avoids the trap and aids in making Elaine a more multi-dimensional figure. Finally, the invaluable Megan Mullally (TV's "Will & Grace," 2001's "Monkeybone
") highlights her every scene as John's "sexually indiscriminate" older sister, Patty. Mullally is far too talented for such an insubstantial part, but at least she does everything in her power to make it her own. The rest of the supporting cast are strictly throwaway fodder, including Chris Penn (2001's "Corky Romano
"), as John's old criminal high school classmate, and John C. McGingley (2001's "The Animal
"), as a police officer investigating a robbery John and Duff was involved in.
An absence of anything creative or endearing sinks "Stealing Harvard." Simplistic and empty, director McColluch appears happy to just be creakily turning the wheels of the plot along without any regard to solid material. Go see "Stealing Harvard," and the only things sure to be stolen are your wallet and a worthwhile time.
©2002 by Dustin Putman