Harvard Man

Yes, that's our Buffy, Sarah Michelle Gellar, playing a cheerleader who is not above sneaking off to the woods with her boyfriend, hiking up her skirt, sitting on his dick and bumping and grinding without missing a beat in the conversation. Gellar is a long way here from Scooby-Doo — thank the gods — and James Toback's Harvard Man is an even longer way from the Hollywood drool that pretends to take on issues — sexual, ethical, criminal — that often come with a college education.

Which is not to say that Harvard Man is unblemished. Like most Toback films, from Fingers to Two Girls and a Guy and Black and White, this one flings more balls in the air than it can juggle. But watching Toback overextend himself is exhilarating. Loosely based on the writer-director's experiences at Harvard, the film stars Adrian Grenier as Alan Jensen, a philosophy student and basketball star who likes getting laid just before a game. Alan swings between lovers — it's either his philosophy prof (breathy Joey Lauren Adams in a casting risk that pays off) or a mafia princess (Gellar, with surprises of her own). Leonardo DiCaprio once toyed with playing Alan, but Grenier brings to the role a deft blend of decency and depravity.

Alan, as befitting a student of Nietzsche, is facing a moral crisis. His parents need $100,000 after their Kansas home is destroyed in a tornado. Mafia girl can get the money from Daddy and make some cash of her own if Alan throws the big game. The prof scolds Alan for hanging with criminals and warns him off the LSD a fellow student provides ("It's cyanide," she says). He ignores her advice, inciting hell in the form of FBI agents (Eric Stoltz and Rebecca Gayheart), mob goons and what is arguably the freakiest acid trip in movies.

Toback, as usual, will get hammered for his excesses about race, violence and kinky sex, for his fractured editing, for his trust that talk — if it's good — will eventually get at a moral truth. In a summer of clones, Harvard Man is something rare and riveting: a wild ride that relies on more than special effects.

From The Archives Issue 901: July 25, 2002
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