Stealing Harvard

Stealing a better script might have been preferable.

Released in 2002, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 12 Mar 2003 by Craig Eastman
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John Plummer's generosity is his own worst enemy. Many years ago he was caught on a family videotape making a promise to his underprivileged and somewhat distraught niece, who had just exited a spelling bee after failing on the first word; tarp. Consoling her and reassuring her she's not a failure, he tells her that one day she'll go to college, and when she does her good old Uncle John is going to foot the bill. Imagine his surprise, then, when visiting her trailer-trash home years later he discovers she's been offered a place at Harvard. Hardly likely, but if you can suspend your disbelief for another eighty minutes you'll be subject to an effectual enough little comedy from director Bruce McCulloch, previously one fifth of Canada's top comedy troupe The Kids In The Hall.

The real killer for John (Jason Lee) is that he has the thirty thousand dollars to send his niece on her dream education, it's just that he and his fiancee Elaine Warner (Leslie Mann) have only just finished saving it as a downpayment on their dream home. Being as he's so in love with Elaine, and works for her father (Dennis Farina), he can hardly let her down and use their money to keep his word. There's certainly no way he's going to ask Mr. Warner either, since he deeply distrusts his future son-in-law and is the last person who'd ever give him thirty large. The only person John can think of to help is his old friend Walter "Duff" Duffy (Tom Green), who in John's own words is "a man who's ideas were often so dumb they were brilliant".

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Green hasn't had a fantastic time of it lately after the failure of films like Freddy Got Fingered, struggling to claw back some of the praise that was heaped on him during his stint on television. Here, however, his performance is just the right side of off-kilter to go down a treat. As the neurotic Duff, he leads the determined John on a series of predictably doomed escapades in order to procure the necessary readies. As a result, we get the pair cack-handedly attempting to rob the house of a wealthy male widower who's garden Duff had recently landscaped, holding up a liquor store belonging to Duff's uncle for it's lottery takings (with the owner's consent), roping in a psychotic old school friend (Chris Penn) for a little bank robbery, and ultimately trying to steal the money from Mr. Warner's business whilst all the while being tracked by the inept Detective Charles (John C. McGinley). That none of these supposedly 'dead-cert' hold-ups goes to plan is hardly a shock, but they are planned and executed in a pleasing enough manner to raise more than the occasional chuckle.

Besides Lee who is his usual laconic self, and Green who pretty much holds the full weight of the humour on his shoulders admirably, the rest of the supporting cast are criminally underused. Farina has proven on numerous occasions, most notably Get Shorty, that he has superb comic timing and a natural flare for quirky characters, but here he is denied the chance to use either by a largely underwhelming script. Similarly McGinley, who has also proven himself worthy of better things, gets very little to play with in terms of characterisation, and has to resort to the old stereotype of frustrated cop who's suspects always get let off the leash at the last possible moment under dubious circumstances. Mann is perfectly acceptable as the working-from-home wife to be, but the supposed hatred between her character and that of Duff is never really played on to any kind of effect.

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Stealing Harvard has taken a critical slating, but to be honest it's pretty unfair. There really is a lot to be enjoyed here, primarily Green's off-beat portrayal of Duff, but it does make itself an easy target for the critical snipers. It's mercifully short at a little over 80 minutes, but I'd really rather McCulloch had taken a little longer and given some more screen time over to the bit-players. Farina, McGinley and Penn are all capable of so much more when allowed a little time to expand their roles, and in doing so could have elevated this to well above average. As it is, they seem happy enough to pick up their cheques and be on their way, which is a shame for you and I as viewers.

It's not exactly a comedy milestone, but it's still easily as good as any other number of recent efforts out there, and I would certainly recommend it over something like Orange County. Hopefully Green can ascend from this level of mediocre material and reclaim his right as a figure of worship for fans of comedy everywhere, but in the meantime Stealing Harvard is a pleasing enough stop gap. Oh, and if you do decide to watch it, why not take Duff's advice and forego the popcorn; heat up a brick of cheese instead. Yum...

Craig Disko awards this film 3 out of 5 Happy Baguettes.

*** ALERT! This film contains a bonus cameo appearance by ***
*** theOneliner favourite Don "The Dragon" Wilson! ALERT! ***
Bruce McCulloch
Cast list:
Jason Lee (John Plummer)
Tom Green (Walter "Duff" Duffy)
Leslie Mann (Elaine Warner)