THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


There are certain comedies that aim relentlessly for your funny bone, trying at every conceivable turn to put you on the floor laughing. The Farrelly Brothers make this kind of movie; other examples are films like Airplane!, Animal House, or The Naked Gun. Then there are comedies where the goal is less clear. They might have some funny moments, but basically they are lazy. A certain formula is followed, with little originality inserted anywhere. Although there's not usually anything greatly offensive or appalling about them, I often wonder why people would bother to make this kind of comedy. If you're going to try to be funny, you owe it to the audience to really go for it instead of just ambling along blandly. Stealing Harvard is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. It just sits there, providing an occasional chuckle without ever really making an effort to be anything more than amiable. It's an underachiever of a comedy.

Jason Lee plays John Plummer, a mild-mannered guy who is about to marry his fiancee Elaine (Leslie Mann). He works in a home health-care store called "Homespital" where his boss is also his future father-in-law, Mr. Warner (Dennis Farina). The two of them don't get along at all. Elaine has insisted that she and John save $30,000 to make a down payment on a house, and they have just reached that goal. One day, John visits his sister Patty (Megan Mullally) at her trailer. Patty is happy because her daughter Noreen (Tammy Blanchard) has just been accepted to Harvard University. John is happy too, until Patty reminds him of a promise he made years before: he agreed to pay for Noreen's education if she ever got into college. The problem is that John made this agreement off-handedly, on the assumption that the girl was too stupid to ever actually get accepted anywhere. When he tries to get out of it, Noreen turns on the tears. John relents but is stuck with a bill for just under $30,000.

Tom Green and Jason Lee turn to a life of crime in Stealing Harvard
Desperate to keep his promise without sacrificing the house money he and Elaine have saved, John turns to his goofy best friend Duff (Tom Green) for advice. Duff almost immediately suggests robbery. He has a wealthy client who keeps his safe conveniently unlocked and filled with cash. John resists at first but ultimately sees no other way out. The two attempt to rob the safe, with no success. Duff knows other avenues to go down, including robbing a convenience store and driving the getaway car in a bank holdup that is being perpetrated by a former high school classmate. Each plan meets with its own set of disasters that threaten to land John in prison. Eventually, he has no choice but to confide in Elaine. Surprisingly, she comes up with a plan to rob her own father and offers to pitch in her help.

Stealing Harvard would have been funnier if it had focused more on the comic possibilities of John's desire to keep his promise. Instead, it focuses on the robberies, which are too silly to be funny. For instance, when John tries to rob Duff's client, the guy turns out to be a pervert who makes John dress up like his deceased wife and "spoon" in bed. By now, the whole men-in-drag thing is beyond the point of being funny. It's more of a cheap laugh than anything else. I would have liked to see the picture come up with something more clever or poignant. Let's face it: John's in a pretty desperate situation. Desperation is always great fodder for comedy. So why take the easy route instead of really exploring the more interesting comic possibilities?

Jason Lee is a very funny actor who has done some great work in other movies, particularly those directed by Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Dogma). He squeezes out a few laughs here and there, as does the always amusing Dennis Farina. Tom Green, on the other hand, continues his attempts at career suicide. We last saw him on the big screen in the despicable Freddie Got Fingered, which is one of the worst movies I have ever seen. Stealing Harvard is obviously nowhere near as offensive as that film, but it's not a big leap for Green as an actor either. The problem is that Green doesn't know how to act; he only knows how to do his manic weirdo routine. There are times during this picture when you can visibly see him just standing there, waiting for the other actors to finish delivering their lines so he can launch into his goofy bit. He makes faces, repeats things, runs around like a spaz, and then stops cold to let the others take over again. It's not a performance - it's an intrusion. If Green really wants to have a film career, he needs to learn how to interact with other people instead of just taking over the stage.

I found Stealing Harvard to be a lot like skim milk: it's too watered down to be very good. It's not the kind of movie you hate necessarily; it's just one of those films where you sit there for 85 minutes wishing you were seeing something better but glad you didn't end up seeing something worse.

( out of four)

Stealing Harvard is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language and drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 25 minutes.

Return to The Aisle Seat