James Toback has a wild spirit as a filmmaker and it lets itself out in Harvard Man in both the good and the bad that one finds in self-indulgent artists (I mean that as a compliment, sort of, since art has to be indulgent to a great degree). He takes a story of a basketball player at Harvard, Allan (Adrian Grenier), and transforms his conflicts with his multiple love interests (mob-daughter girlfriend played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, philosophy professor Joey Lauren Adams), his big gamble that he has to take a dive at a game to get his parents money for their house, the FBI after this backfires, and, mostly, his adventure into fifteen thousand milligrams of pure LSD, into a delirious little epic. Yes, epic.
Toback's style is all over the place from start to finish. His camera reaches up high and is usually moving, even when there is absolutely no real reason to. The excess in the camera movement is also complimented (or not) by an over-written script, which is something that doesn't happen usually unless a writer, like Toback, doesn't know when to stop with his characters. He compensates by having them talk fast (that or his editor takes out the little catch-my-breath beats in a conversation), and while not as annoying as the camera movements in most scenes in the first half of the film, it's noticeable. It's a filmmaker reaching far, maybe too far, into a realm of personal expression and putting the story into a modern setting - check the Bach mixed with rap and rock for more of that.
And yet it's hard to totally begrudge what Toback does get right here. When we're meant to take a lot of this seriously in the first half (the deep philosophical talk in Chesney's class about Kierkegard and Lichtenstein or that mob 'family' of caricatures), it's interesting but it never really works dramatically. But when Toback suddenly shifts the tone in the second half, when Allan takes the three cubes of LSD, it suddenly becomes a full-on comedy of errors and surprises. To be sure, some of the visual jokes and whacked-out faces that Allan sees could be attributed to the same style as Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, it still works. Especially funny is how Allan just seems to slip out of the FBI's hands (watch the one really strong scene of cinematography, sound, and acting all combined in the FBI interrogation room), and a masterpiece of a cameo appearance from Al Franken (like Toback also former Harvard alum).
It also helps with the comedy in the second half of the film that the acting, more or less, is pretty strong. Sarah Michelle Gellar actually gives one of her most convincing, well-rounded performances as a B-word whose intentions are not very well hidden but puffed up with rich-girl sass and sex appeal. Grenier also goes for broke as a guy with a good sense of himself, until he bugs out from the acid and runs all over town. Adams might be a little more of the one-note performance, the stable voice but not as intriguing as Gellar and Grenier in their roles. They're all put in a movie that is mixed up and has a lot to say about sex, drugs, life, living, betting, sports, and lots more. I respect Harvard Man, and if those trip-out scenes come on TV I'll be sure to watch again. But recommend? No. 5.5/10