The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



HairBrained is a low-key charmer. It's got some flaws, but I really, really liked the parts of it that work. The movie is offbeat and possesses a certain amount of sass. On the surface, it seems like a standard underdogs-in-a-competition story, yet everything plays out in a manner that also subtly satirizes that old formula.

Alex Wolff plays Eli Pettifog, a 14-year-old genius who ends up at the not entirely prestigious Whittman College after being rejected by Harvard. With a massive tangle of hair and a sardonic sense of humor, he doesn't fit in with the older students. A jock named Laird (Michael Oberholtzer) bullies him, and Laird's girlfriend Eve (Elisabeth Hower) cruelly tries to get him all hot and bothered. The only real friends Eli makes are Leo Searly (Brendan Fraser), a 41-year-old guy furthering his education following a mid-life crisis, and Shauna (Julia Garner), a townie almost as socially awkward as Eli himself. After being tormented by visiting members of Harvard's academic team, he gets the idea to join Whittman's eternally-losing squad, with the goal of eventually beating the bigger university in the quiz bowl. Leo provides advice and guidance along the way.

What's fun about HairBrained is that it skewers the cliches of the competition-movie formula a little bit. One of the more humorous ideas is that Whittman's team is terrible and the brilliant Eli has to carry the other members, who can't answer a question to save their lives. There's also something appealing about the notion that Eli is driven by a desire for revenge not just against the Harvard brains who harassed him, but against the university itself for rejecting him. In taking such a personal track, HairBrained becomes less about whether Whittman's team will win and more about whether Eli can find vindication, which is far more compelling. There are also a few third act twists that you don't usually see in pictures of this sort, and they keep you in legitimate suspense as to how everything will play out.

Alex Wolff, a former Nickeldeon star, has a nice, deadpan style that really works for the character. Rather than being a precocious child genius, he makes Eli a little bitter and a little angry. Early on, Laird hazes Eli by sticking his head in a toilet. Eli responds by shaking his big old head of wet hair, soaking his abuser in the exact same nasty water. Moments like this work because Wolff convincingly sells the intelligence his character has. And it's not just academic smarts, it's life smarts. This is a really terrific piece of work from a young actor with a bright future.

HairBrained has a lot of good stuff. There is nothing egregiously wrong with the film. It just needs more of a few things: more pronounced comedy, more development of Leo's subplot, more exploration of the world of academic competition. There are laughs, but certain scenes feel like they need a bigger comic payoff. Leo's estranged daughter is abruptly introduced, and their mini-drama is just as abruptly resolved. We never quite know the rules of the quiz bowl or how it operates. More of each of these things would have kicked HairBrained into high gear. Their absence is felt.

Even if the movie never fully achieves its potential, there's plenty to enjoy. Eli Pettifog is an endearing character, and his journey to prove himself keeps you hooked, despite the elements that don't quite measure up. And Alex Wolff? This kid is someone to watch. He carries HairBrained like a boss.

( 1/2 out of four)

Note: HairBrained is in theaters and also available on VOD.

Hairbrained is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language, nudity, teen smoking and drinking, and drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.

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