academic quiz show, Alex Wolff, Austin Pendleton, Billy Kent, Brendan Fraser, child genius, college student, Collegiate Mastermind, collegiate rivalries, coming of age, Eli Pettifog, Elisabeth Hower, Fred Melamed, Greta Lee, HairBrained, Harvard, independent films, indie comedies, Julia Garner, Kimiko Glenn, Leo Searly, Michael Oberholtzer, midlife crisis, Napoleon Dynamite, Parker Posey, Robin de Jesus, romance, Rushmore, social outcasts, Teddy Bergman, The Trotsky, voice-over narration, Whittman College
Sporting a King Buzzo hairdo and dragging an outrageously overstuffed dufflebag of books behind him, Eli Pettifog (Alex Wolff) is quite the memorable figure. He’s also a socially inept, fourteen-year-old certifiable genius who’s just begun his freshman year at Whittman College, the 37th best school on his list, far below his beloved first choice, Harvard. Eli, obviously, is not going to have an easy go of it. On the other hand, Eli is droll, fearless and has a way with a witty comeback that would make Juno proud. In other words, at least as far as indie comedies go, Eli is gonna be just fine.
As the centerpiece of Billy Kent’s HairBrained (2013), Eli joins a proud tradition of cinematic misfits made good, taking his place with the likes of Max Fischer, Napoleon Dynamite and Leon Bronstein. Like his predecessors, Eli faces a pretty predictable arc: begin as the maligned outsider and win the world over with his quirky charm. While HairBrained is nowhere near the ivied walls of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998), nor even the high school halls of Jacob Tierney’s The Trotsky (2009), the film has enough charm to make it a breezy watch and a worthwhile addition to the canon.
We’re first introduced to Eli as his waste-case of a mother (Parker Posey, in a great cameo) drops him off at the bus station on his first day of college. She’s “too tired” to drive him to school: she’s a “terrible mother,” his voice-over informs us. “Make some friends,” she tells him, with a tone that indicates she knows how this particular request will go. And, with the gentle, psuedo-tropical rhythms of Cayucas’ “Cayucos” playing on the soundtrack, we’re off. It’s an effective opening and a good portent of what’s to come: plenty of gently snark, some genuine emotion and lots of quirk.
Every good movie misfit needs a sidekick and Eli gets his in the form of Leo Searly (Brendan Fraser), the unnaturally happy, easy-going, oldest freshman student at Whittman. As we discover via a clever “slot-machine”-style interlude, Leo has recently had a bit of a mid-life crisis, abandoning his job and family to “rediscover” himself which, as we’ll come to see, mostly consists of flipping a coin to decide between adding badminton or squash to his schedule and attending raging keggers where he gleefully picks up on co-eds young enough to be his daughter. Leo takes to Eli at first sight and makes it his goal to help steer his young protegé through the rocky waters of academia which, again, mostly consists of attending parties and learning to “loosen up.”
For his part, however, Eli can never truly be happy since he’ll always have to settle for second-best: namely, any place that isn’t Harvard. He’s wanted to attend the Ivy League school since he was a small boy and still plasters every inch of his Whittman dorm with his accumulated Harvard memorabilia: being rejected by the school is a blow that Eli still struggles to overcome, even as his outward appearance suggests nothing so much as bored acceptance.
After seeing a flyer for Collegiate Mastermind, an academic quiz show, Eli attends a competition only to watch in delight as his beloved Harvard wipes the floor with the pathetic Whittman team (Eli stands and cheers every time Harvard scores, earning him multiple “atta boys” from the smug Harvard crew, along with dismayed looks from his own peers). After the meet, Eli tries to wheedle himself in with the Harvard boys, only for the nerds to turn around and bully him after finding out that he goes to Whittman. In one moment, Eli’s entire world is turned upside-down: where once burned the flame of adulation, now only burns hatred. Rushing back to his room and destroying all of his Harvard gear, Eli vows revenge on his former crush: he will join Whittman’s Collegiate Mastermind team and he will utterly destroy Harvard…or, at least, Harvard’s Collegiate Mastermind team.
Once the boy genius is on-board, Whittman’s Collegiate Mastermind team is virtually unstoppable. In face, Eli pretty much becomes the entire team, completely over-shadowing original members Gertrude (Greta Lee), Alan (Teddy Bergman) and Romeo (Ruben de Jesus). He even gets a girlfriend in the form of the equally quirky Shauna (Julia Garner), who works at the local mall and enjoys smoking pot and making out (clumsily). Eli also ends up with his own fan base (success-starved Whittman students will hold on to any victories they can get, attending CM meets and chanting “We’re not dumb” en masse) and even a groupie, of sorts, in out-of-his-league cheerleader Eve (Elisabeth Hower), whose football player boyfriend, Laird (Michael Oberholtzer), has become some sort of “frenemy” to Eli. As for Leo, a chance reunion with his estranged daughter, who is now a perspective Whittman student, has got him re-evaluating his life choices: it certainly gets him rethinking his choice in bed partners, as his latest girlfriend is too close in age to his daughter for comfort.
As Eli and the Whittman team get ever closer to their elusive Harvard rivals, temptations arise everywhere for our intrepid heroes: Eli’s increasing showboating and obnoxious behavior during meets threatens his participation in the Collegiate Mastermind finals, Leo’s need for tuition money for his daughter leads him to return to his formerly destructive gambling habits. Will Eli be a hero and take Whittman all the way to a championship? Will Leo do right by his family, at long last? And will someone finally shut up those egotistical Harvard nitwits?
Although HairBrained doesn’t do much different from any other indie coming-of-age comedies of late, it’s still a pleasant, fun film, even if it manages to lose quite a bit of steam by the final third. Without a doubt, the film’s biggest asset is its incredibly winning cast: while there are certainly stand-outs, nearly every performer is equally likeable, charismatic and entertaining, whether in major or minor roles. Wolff and Fraser make an excellent odd couple, sort of a Mutt and Jeff where Fraser gets to traffic in his patented “aw shucks” attitude to great effect. Wolff is a pretty extraordinary young actor, definitely someone who we’ll be seeing more of in the future. Michael Oberholtzer almost steals the film away as Laird, however, playing the character as anything but the stereotypical bully: the bit where he inexplicably dresses like the Donnie Darko rabbit is pretty great but even better is his initial meeting with Eli, wherein he holds his head in the toilet after which he toasts his new “enemy” with a swig from his hip-flask. It’s a great, funny character and Oberholtzer is endlessly fun to watch.
Just as impressive, however, are Greta Lee, Julia Garner and Elisabeth Hower as, respectively, Gertrude, Shauna and Eve. As the no-nonsense anchor to Whittman’s CM team, Lee’s Gertrude is the perfect combination of wistful desire and bland practicality, while Garner’s take on the “manic pixie girl” stereotype is infinitely more tolerable than similar recent examples. Hower, for her part, is magnificent as Eve, playing the character as something of a lackadaisical predator, a sleepy-eyed shark who sets her sights on Eli, for whatever reason: the scene where she corners her prey in the library and implores him to “Look past her breasts,” to which Eli gives his best Henny Youngman-esque answer, “Look past them? I can’t even look at them!” is one of the film’s funniest moments.
On the downside, HairBrained ends up running out of steam well before the conclusion and a lot of what seemed charming and funny in the first two-thirds begins to feel strained and humdrum by the finale. My biggest issue came with the two deux ex machinas dropped into the script, either of which would have been bad enough on their own but taken together almost seem insulting: in essence, any time the relatively “stakes-free” film threatens its characters’ complacency, the script throws in a handy way to get them out, free and easy. As mentioned, it’s more than tiresome: it mars what’s otherwise a pretty good, funny script and smacks of lazy writing.
Despite a few issues, however, HairBrained is a pretty charming film: it’s not a classic, by any stretch of the imagination, but I found myself liking it a great deal more than I did Juno (2007). The dialogue is (usually) pretty clever, Wolff and Fraser have great chemistry and are completely believable as the odd couple friends and the supporting cast is exceptionally strong. While the film doesn’t break any new ground, it does just fine with what it has.