James Toback / Color, 99 minutes / Copyright 2002 / Rated R
Drugs. Sports. Money. Sex. Good. Bad. Right. Wrong. Interested? See "Harvard Man".
MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD
"Harvard Man" is a film that, much like an acid trip, you have to accept the moment you begin with it. You don't worry about where it's going. You sit down, you wait it out, and hopefully by the end, you feel better and not worse. Sure, you may say, that's the case with any movie isn't it? You're either gonna like it or you aren't, but that's not my point. The reason I so eagerly apply it to "Harvard Man" is, well, "Harvard Man" isn't a movie as much as it is an experience.
Now don't misunderstand me. "Harvard Man" is not an indisputable classic of cinema, it is not "The Godfather" or "Gone With the Wind", hell, as far as drug culture cinema fares it will probably never fall in comfortably next to the likes of "Easy Rider" or "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas". But, if you have the spirit for it, I believe "Harvard Man" to be a wonderful film with a lot of fascinating things to offer.
The plot goes a little something like this: Alan (Adrian Grenier) is a Philosophy Major at Harvard University, constantly fascinated by the possibility of freeing himself from the inhibitions of the rational mind. Getting rid of the Self, and reaching a point where he's closer to ultimate clarity. He's also the star player on the Harvard Basketball Team, and divides his romantic attentions between a mob boss's daughter (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and his Kierkegaard-spouting Philosophy Professor (Joey Lauren Adams). He smokes marijuana, particularly after (or during) sex as part of his whole complex over meshing the greatest indulgences until you've reached the other side of being. Here's where thing's get particularly wacky. Watching The News in a bar with his girlfriend Cindy (Gellar), Alan finds out that his hometown in Kansas has been wiped out by a Tornado. Fearing for his parents, he flies back home and finds them with all the other affected families in a high school gymnasium that has been set up to accommodate them. Apparently, they didn't have Tornado insurance, and therefor have no money to rebuild their home. Alan decides to take it upon himself to find the money for them against their wishes, and returns to Cambridge to come up with a plan. He ends up asking Cindy's Mob Boss Father for the money, who agrees to give it to him - under the condition that he throws his next basketball game.
The long and the short of it is of course that Alan has to deal with the moral issues surrounding throwing a basketball game, doing bad for a good cause. And most movies would let that be the whole premise and enough to fill everything out. But "Harvard Man" is not most movies, and this information is all set up in the first twenty minutes of the film, only to prepare you for the real story. Alan doesn't struggle with the moral question for very long, as far as I can tell, it lasts for about five minutes of the film's entire running time before he decides to throw the game and get the money for his folks. The moral issue of what's right and what's wrong is a pebble on the beach compared to the greater philosophical issues on Alan's mind - the oblivion of Self. So amidst the conflicts and emotions of his unique situation, surrounded by the wild anxiety of this freeze frame from his life, suddenly affected by the Mob, thousands of dollars, feelings for two women (one much older), tornadoes, teammates, parental distrust, and an education tutored from the most admired University in all of America... Alan decides to let go.
He pops 15,000 micrograms of some very very potent pure LSD 25 (he is instructed beforehand to under no circumstances take more than 5,000 micrograms at a time), and for a third of the movie, Alan is lost in his own mind. We aren't engulfed entirely in his world, but we do get to see through his eyes for a lot of his experiences. Alan's in trouble, because he has lost touch with rational thought at a very inopportune time - Two sex-crazed FBI Agents (Eric Stoltz and Rebecca Gayheart) are after him, as well as the Mob Boss's hired goons. For the rest of the film, you are kept guessing as to how Alan is going to not only resolve all his actual tangible problems, but how is he going to come down (and where will he stand when he gets there)?
That is the basic formula behind "Harvard Man" - A juxtaposition of unbelievable occurrences and philosophical questions, and Writer/Director James Toback utilizes the same concept in his presentation of this formula. Scenes are cut together over one another, delivering all the necessary information in a more aggressive pace than is commonly seen in cinema. Colors are vivid, cuts are sharp and tight and often times Toback uses two different pieces of music overlapping one another to illustrate the films unraveling unsteadiness. The story is very loosely based on Toback's own experiences studying philosophy at Harvard in the 60's, a time during which he ultimately decided to give up on philosophy and move in to film. Dramatically, as well as stylistically, it's an incredibly original work.
As for all the other factors one might care about, I'll do my best, however the performances are almost impossible to comment on. Barely anybody involved seems as though at any point they're supposed to portray any depth apart from Grenier while performing his acid trip. Gellar is slightly deeper than normal and Gayheart is playing something unfamiliar and enjoyable, Eric Stoltz is an ever-dependable actor doing as good a job as ever. Trying to figure out if Joey Lauren Adams is somehow convincing as a Harvard Philosophy Professor doesn't even apply here. The real treat of the film however is a cameo by Harvard Alum Al Franken and his daughter, a current Harvard Student. The film was shot probably around 75% on the actual Harvard Campus in Cambridge, MA and it really adds to the character of the movie. I was fortunate enough that when I saw the film for the first time it was at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, surrounded by actual Harvard students.
This film poses questions about the self and the mind, philosophy and art, love and sex. Despite it's warnings about LSD use it strays from being preachy and allows you to wrestle with these questions on your own. It is at times far fetched, beyond convention (or even rational thought), begging to be discussed, but then again so is philosophy. So are drugs. Just sit back and try to enjoy the trip.