Published September 16, 2002
One might have hoped that Stealing Harvard, written by Peter Tolan and Martin Hynes and directed by Bruce McCulloch (one of the very talented Canadian ensemble, the Kids in the Hall) would have something satirically to tell us about the American obsession with higher education and what Charles Murray calls the “cognitive élite.” But in spite of the title it’s not about Harvard at all. John Plummer (Jason Lee) has just saved up $30,000 — enough money to get married to his sweetheart, Elaine (Leslie Mann) — when his niece, Noreen (Tammy Blanchard), for whose education once in a fit of generosity he offered to pay, gets herself admitted to Harvard. By coincidence the sum she needs to top up her student grants and loans is $30,000. Unwilling to disappoint either his niece or his fiancée, he embarks upon a career of crime with his old friend Walter “Duff” Duffy (Tom Green) to raise the extra money.
Of course in real life Noreen could hardly have been denied her chance at Harvard by insufficient funds. That’s not the way the system works anymore. But it would have been doubly interesting to see Harvard get into the act a bit more — instead of being nothing but a vague offstage presence, the McGuffin of this movie — because the world of the cognitive élite of which it sits at the pinnacle is also that which is responsible for the dumb-and-dumber comedy put on for us by Messrs. Lee and Green. We used, that is, to laugh at ethnic stereotypes or drunks or crazy people, all of which are now taboo. But we can still laugh at stupid people, since stupidity is the one thing it is still OK to stigmatize in our bustling but tolerant meritocracy.
Yet in spite of my disappointment with Stealing Harvard, I have to admit that I laughed a lot. On more than one occasion when John and Duff meet the former says to the latter, “I can’t stay mad at you,” and this is rather how I feel about the movie itself. The two friends really are pretty funny together, though you have to have a bit more of a taste for the humor of Tom Green than I have not to wish for rather less of the latter than we are given. There are also outstanding supporting performances from Dennis Farina as Elaine’s overbearing father, Richard Jenkins as a crazed widower (perhaps grief, like stupidity, is fair game these days), John C. McGinley as a clueless police detective and Megan Mullally as Noreen’s mother, John’s sister, whom even her nearest and dearest call “sexually indiscriminate trailer trash.” Sluttishness as an object of ridicule in women, like cowardice in men, has of course never gone out of style.
But it is the individual jokes which are the making of the film — the name “Homespital,” for instance, given to the emporium selling home medical equipment which employs John and which is owned by Elaine’s father, or the several unexpected uses made of John and Duff’s inept robbery attempt by a sly convenience store clerk, or the fact that Elaine always bursts into tears during sexual intercourse without knowing it. The comic potentialities of the almost terminally tightly-wound Elaine, by the way, strike me as being much greater than those of Mr Green’s character. Her odd, ambivalent relationship with her father and her “small to medium-sized business” (just about to turn the corner) making “gift baskets,” for instance, are only touched upon but then dropped by the wayside.
Likewise, there are hints at times of a willingness to take on not just Harvard and the cognitive élite but the whole business of “the American dream.” What gets John into trouble as guarantor of Noreen’s education, for instance, is his assurance that “You work hard and follow your dreams and things will always work out.” One of Duff’s entrepreneurial activities is called “Dial a Bottle” and consists of his buying beer for teenagers. When John remonstrates with him, he replies: “I provide a public service, John. One way or another, those kids were going to get drunk. It’s their American dream.” Once again, one would like to have seen what briefly promises to be a wry Canadian take on the cant of our American dreamers. But I think that Tom Green is the kind of actor who just sucks the comic air out of a picture. If you like him, however, you’ll like Stealing Harvard — and you may like some things in it even if you don’t.