Sometimes the ambition it takes to win can hurt as much as losing. That’s the source of the gentle seam of melancholy running through Billy Kent’s prodigy-goes-to-college comedy HairBrained, which manages to play like a winning amalgam of Real Genius and Rushmore, even though it shouldn’t work at all. Eli Pettifog, the alarmingly hirsute underage freshman hero played with great charm and sensitivity by star Alex Wolff, just has it too easy. Sulking around beneath a tangled, Wookie-in-a-wind-tunnel hairdo (“It protects my brain,” he says), Eli encounters almost no resistance on his journey—more of a stroll, really—from intellectually undernourished middle-schooler to Collegiate Mastermind champion and campus curiosity/stud.
Okay, so Harvard turned him down. And his mom is the sort of neglectful parent who forgets to pay the rent roughly 12 times as often as she forgets her only child’s birthday. (Parker Posey has a marvelous cameo as Eli’s mother, in the first minute of the film.) Eli has a slight chip on his slight shoulder because of those two things. But none of the more prosaic trials of simply being 13 seem to phase him. He isn’t just gifted with a freakishly supple, absorbent mind; he seems to have the emotional intelligence of a much more experienced person factory-installed, too.
Immediately upon his arrival at Whitman College—“the 37th-best small liberal-arts college on the East Coast”—Eli is forcibly befriended by 41-year-old freshman Leo Searly (Brendan Fraser), who becomes his wingman, mentor, and guardian. Eli is invited to parties and pursued by a sexually aggressive upperclasswoman; when he turns her down, her boyfriend beats him up. When a girl asks him publicly why he has pubic hair on his head, he plays it cool, winning the crowd with witty self-defense, just like Cyrano de Bergerac. And soon enough, he attracts the notice of sweet, age-appropriate, Technicolor-blonde Shauna (Julia Garner). (She’s a townie, not a college student.) “I’ve seen you checking out my boyish curves!” she coos.
Eli finds fast acceptance as the star of Whitman’s Collegiate Mastermind team, the quiz-bowl-style general-knowledge tournament. Seeing his opportunity to get even with Harvard for rejecting him, Eli embarks upon his unlikely/inevitable pursuit of the Collegiate Mastermind trophy, which Harvard has held for decades. (Robin De Jesús and Greta Lee have a fun, antagonistic relationship as Eli’s less-gifted teammates.) A montage of Whitman’s victories features interstitial animation of their mascot, the Whitman Warring Hare, sprinting across a road map to the site of their next contest.
Kent’s photography is so energetic, and the soundtrack is so sprightly—it features jagged tunes from beloved cult act The Feelies, as well as other, less familiar indie bands—that the thinness of the characterization slips by almost unnoticed. And Kent never relies on the songs to shape the emotional tenor of the scene, the way lazy directors do. None of the film’s deficiencies detract from the fun as it unspools.
Even so: This is one of those college movies wherein no one ever has any work to do. Eli can coast on his God-given intellect, but don’t his friends have to study sometimes? When Eli is finally given a tough choice to make, it comes too late in the film to generate any real suspense. As the agent of Eli’s brief temptation, the great character actor and playwright Austin Pendleton is underused.
Wolff and Fraser have a warm chemistry. Unfortunately, Fraser seems lost in the scenes without Wolff, unable to decide whether he’s in an Animal House-style bacchanal, or a more somber coming-of-age film. That’s partially a flaw in the writing. Wouldn’t a 41-year-old divorced dad feel a little uncomfortable, not to mention legally at risk, about getting wasted and sleeping around with undergrads? And if he didn’t, is that guy an appropriate mentor for anyone?
Maybe so, but neither Fraser nor screenwriter Adam Wierzbianski (who shares story credit with director Kent and producer Sarah Bird) seem interested in even asking these questions. A complication involving Leo’s estranged daughter, which arrives exactly halfway through the film, feels contrived, then gets dealt with almost as halfheartedly as it was introduced. Given the emotional astuteness of Wolff’s scenes, it’s easy to wonder whether 15 minutes of deleted material concerning Fraser’s character is lying on a cutting-room floor somewhere.
That seems like a lot of strikes against a film that’s as easy to enjoy and as recommend as HairBrained. Wierzbianski and company mine every opportunity for humor that their scenario offers, from the announcements flashing on various message boards around campus to the inane banter between the Collegiate Mastermind commentators. (So what if Dodgeball did it slightly better?) While the darker avenues Fraser’s character suggests go unexplored, the film seems to understand that Eli will one day face disappointment, even if he triumphs today. And in Wolff, Kent has found a guy who projects star power, but also humility. His performance isn’t just smart. It’s genius.