You really must have an open mind when approaching a James Toback film, yet even the most forgiving soul out there would have some trouble with Toback's often staggeringly infantile direction. Toback, the mind (or force) behind the recent truth-seeking odysseys "Two Girls And A Guy" and "Black and White," returns with "Harvard Man" (IMDb listing), another interesting journey into the heart of the drug-swilling, sexually-liberated, philosophy-spewing hypocrites that Toback inexplicably loves.
Alan Jensen (Adrian Grenier, "Drive Me Crazy," and as flat as always), is a top basketball player for the Harvard University team. He's also carrying on relationships with one of his professors (Joey Lauren Adams, "Chasing Amy") and a Holy Cross cheerleader named Cindy (Sarah Michelle Gellar, TV's "Buffy The Vampire Slayer"). After a tornado strikes his Kansas hometown, Alan realizes that he needs to raise $100,000 to help repair the family home. His only option is to convince a local crime lord to loan him the money, and that crime lord just happens to be Cindy's father. Given the option to throw a single game in favor of Dartmouth, Alan takes the money, drops some acid, loses the game, and proceeds to get in deep with the FBI, his fellow teammates (including the awful Ray Allen, "He Got Game"), and the two women who use him for sex.
James Toback is the king of uneven films. He writes with a complexity that other screenwriters envy, but once he steps behind the camera, the results are always messy, often intolerable confections that remain easy to watch only because the sex and other assorted luridness are turned up to 11. "Harvard Man" is intended as entertainment, but the way Toback captures it, he drains the life out of the piece with his questionable camera placement, overactive cutting, and shameful casting. There's a spontaneity to the film, as there is in any Toback film, but the filmmaker doesn't know how to corral the energy, and more often than not, each scene opens well, then gets away from him.
Loosely based on Toback's real adventures during the swinging '60s, "Harvard Man" is gummed up with the inclusion of crime film staples like the Mafia and undercover cops. A better film is out there in Toback's true-life adventures, not this made up stuff created to keep audiences on familiar terrain.
Also trying is the film's centerpiece, which features an extended LSD sequence and some "acting time" for Grenier. I'm no fan of drug sequences put to film, and to give credit to Toback, he does avoid most of the twisty camerawork that lesser filmmakers swear by. But whether it's taken as comedy or tragedy, this sequence doesn't work. It places a firm foot on the brakes of an otherwise fast-paced film. Toback claims the sequence closely reflects his own LSD experimentation back in his college days. That doesn't mean it suits the film's narrative, which attempts to explore how to open one's mind, when all that comes out of the scenes are distorted effects and indulgent acting.
Even making a train wreck, Toback can be counted on for some diverting filmmaking. But "Harvard Man" is just another go around for this filmmaker, who needs to move away from envelope-pushing and onto something more substantial quick.
Filmfodder Grade: C-