Big man on campus


Part 2 of a trio of potential embarrassment. It’s a cagey choice, because James Toback has a legion of ardent supporters. The people who hate his movies, however, really, really, really hate them. In the case of this one, even Toback’s biggest fans seemed hesitant to defend it. Cowards.

(Oddly, though, this is the only Toback movie that I’ve seen.)

Harvard Man (2002). Directed by James Toback. Starring Adrian Grenier, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Joey Lauren Adams, and Eric Stoltz.

Harvard Man begins with Adrian Grenier and Sarah Michelle Gellar fucking noisily, while Grenier (as Alan, the “Harvard Man” in question) constantly switches the music on his boombox from Bach to hip-hop, back-and-forth, like a crosscutting DJ at a club. This frame becomes smaller, becomes a panel, as another—showing the warm-up practices and highlight footage of Harvard University’s basketball team, complete with a fast-talking announcer—enters the visual frame. Another panel interrupts soon after—a slow-moving panoramic view of the Harvard campus. The screen looks like a cinematic rendition of a comic-book page, with continuous action in each panel, with sound from each visual frame overlapping the others, and with panels shifting direction as the movie’s opening credits—in Day-Glo colors— pop up on the screen.

And right there in the movie’s first two minutes are Harvard Man’s concerns—the collusion (and collision) between highbrow and lowbrow, between the spirit and the flesh, between the purity of classic cinema and the chaos of the avant-garde (in this case, the French New Wave). The movie keeps to one celluloid frame at a time after the credits, but the splicing between them becomes quicker and busier as Alan’s life becomes more hectic and dangerous.

Alan has so many roles to play in his life—drug-addled stoner, basketball star, Lothario, and straight-A student—that even he gets confused. His parents’s home has been wiped out by a tornado, and he decides to save them financially by fixing a major basketball game for his girlfriend’s dad. Did I mention that her dad is a Mafia don? I should. Did I bring up that Alan’s cheating on his girlfriend (Gellar, sharp-tongued and hilarious) with his philosophy professor (Joey Lauren Adams)? I should mention that, too. Did I mention that the FBI is after the dad and, by proxy, Alan? Well, there’s that, too.

The boy somehow keeps his calm. Grenier shows the same laconic, easygoing charm that he has as the star of HBO’s Entourage. He’s boyish, sure, but that sly smile makes us aware that he knows more, and is less naïve, than he lets on. But he’s still playing a hormonal college kid and, at some point in this madness, he decides that dropping 1500 mg. of acid at once is a good idea. The visual effects become as antic and slurred as he does.

This sounds like a mess. But Harvard Man is a hysterical, terrifically profane, thoroughly moral portrait of a young man learning to grow up. The camera is often handheld and jittery; the editing jumps so fast that it’s hard; the dialogue pops, plunges, and its speakers talk over and above those around them.

Toback isn’t, however, just throwing everything into the kitchen sink. Everything here is perfectly catered to the dichotomy—and merging—of low and high culture. Alan’s two girlfriends—foul-mouthed mob princess vs. graceful philosophy professor. There’s the aforementioned Bach and hip-hop of the soundtrack. Well-rounded conversations about ethics are entangled with imbroglios with the FBI and gangsters.

Somehow, Alan finds a middle way, an understand of how to balance his Brahmin education and bastard impulses. He’s filled with warring impulses and mixed signals, just like Toback (an admitted gambling addict and general risk-taker), just like us all.

Alan finds his salvation with a camera, even though his first significant use of it is to surreptitiously shoot an orgy. The clash, conversation, and coupling of high and low is exactly what college (even Harvard) is all about, whether you’re a student, professor, or—like Toback—a clear-eyed observer. Toback reminds us that the same place that educated presidents and Nobel Prize laureates also spawned one of the goofiest, filthiest rags ever. It’s worth keeping in mind.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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