[Screen It]

(2002) (Jason Lee, Tom Green) (PG-13)

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Comedy: A young man tries to figure out how to keep the promise he made long ago to pay for his niece's college education.
John Plummer (JASON LEE) is a normal guy who's excited by the news that he and his fiancée, Elaine Warner (LESLIE MANN), have finally saved $30,000 meaning that they can get married and buy a house. While John isn't crazy about being related to Elaine's father, Mr. Warner (DENNIS FARINA), who happens to be his boss at a home medical supply store, he loves Elaine and will put up with him.

Then he's reminded of a promise he made long ago to his niece, Noreen (TAMMY BLANCHARD), in front of his trailer trash sister, Patty (MEGAN MULLALLY), that he'd pay for Noreen's college education. Well, it turns out she's been accepted to Harvard and the cost will be in the neighborhood of $30,000.

Unable to tell Elaine of this dilemma, it only gets worse when she uses their money as a down payment on a new house. As a result, John enlists the aid of his goofy friend, Walter "Duff" Duffy (TOM GREEN), a landscaper who comes up with one hair-brained scheme after another of how to get the cash.

Between the two of them, they eventually get involved with Duff's Uncle Jack (SEYMOUR CASSEL), former classmate and current thug David Loach (CHRIS PENN), a lonely man, Mr. Cook (RICHARD JENKINS), who misses his dead wife, and Detective Charles (JOHN C. McGINLEY), a cop who's hot on their trail when their plans turn criminal.

OUR TAKE: 2.5 out of 10
No one's perfect, and in the movie world as elsewhere, people are prone to make mistakes, blunders and plain old poor choices. Thus, one should normally cut filmmakers and performers some slack since they're human and hopefully will learn from their errors. After all, even the likes of Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Dustin Hoffman and others have appeared in or made stinkers, yet managed to rebound and redeem themselves.

That said, I'm losing patience with Tom Green, the comedian turned actor who's yet to turn in a good performance in any film in which he's appeared (including "Road Trip" and "Charlie's Angels"). His acting ability is questionable at best and annoying the rest of the time, and his "Freddy Got Fingered" was such an abomination that the film alone probably should have banned him from movies for a lifetime and then some.

Now he's gone and ruined the latest film in which he appears, "Stealing Harvard," a screwball comedy about a guy who goes to extreme measures to finance his niece's college education. That's not meant to imply that the film would have been anything nearing a cinematic masterpiece without him, but his presence is the albatross around the picture's neck that, in due course, drowns it.

While nothing remotely original, director Bruce McCulloch ("Superstar," "Dog Park") manages to generate some amusing moments from the script by screenwriter Peter Tolan ("America's Sweethearts," "Analyze This"). Early on, one gets the inkling that the film is going to be a somewhat wacky and purposefully off-kilter comedy. When Green and his signature brand of humor arrive on the scene, however, they plow into the side of the film like a dump truck running over an MG.

Whether it's trimming shrubs with a chainsaw, topping off a mouthful of milk from the carton with a squirt of lemon juice (and then spitting both out) or repeatedly trying to break a large window with various home medical products, any of the scenes featuring him grind the film's comedic momentum to a dead stop (and he often appears to be reading his lines from cue cards off camera, or at least is acting like he is). Undoubtedly, there are those who enjoy Green and his "wild" antics. Yet, he's like a bad virus that keeps returning, is unpleasant to experience and ultimately kills its host.

The basic premise of the film, though, isn't anything particularly brilliant, although it doesn't necessarily have to be so to come off as entertaining. The contents of comedy plots can be stupid or idiotic as long as they're done with enough smarts and abide by the rules of whatever universe they've created.

I can accept a guy being so desperate for money that he turns to crime and then blunders his way through his efforts. After all, that's how many real life crimes originate and play out. I must believe, however, the reason or reasons that drive him to that point, and that doesn't occur here.

The filmmakers don't do enough with the material regarding the protagonist needing $30,000 to fulfill his promise to pay for his niece's college education. A few simple fixes could have allowed us to buy into the premise and believe he'd go to such eventually illegal extremes. Yet, they don't occur, and Tammy Blanchard (making her film debut after appearing in the TV movie "Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows" as well as "The Guiding Light") isn't allowed to do enough as the intended recipient to make us root for John's success.

The problems don't end there, however. Simply put, McCulloch and company don't do much in the way of cooking up imaginative or humorous money-making schemes or the comical, failed results thereof. Unfortunately, most of them involve Green's character and the sight of a dog attacking and later humping him simply isn't funny.

Nor is material involving Chris Penn ("Murder by Numbers," "Corky Romano") as a former high school classmate turned criminal thug, Seymour Cassel ("The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Crew") as a corrupt businessman and relative, or John C. McGinley ("The Animal," "Any Given Sunday") as a cop after the main characters.

Both Dennis Farina ("Big Trouble," "Get Shorty") and Megan Mullally ("Monkeybone," TV's "Will & Grace") are wasted in roles found in related but rather flat subplots, while Richard Jenkins ("Changing Lanes," "Say It Isn't So") appears in a slightly amusing running visual gag of men dressed up in drag.

As the average Joe protagonist, Jason Lee ("Big Trouble," "Almost Famous") is okay, but doesn't quite hit the right comedic notes to make his character the lovable loser he's apparently intended to be. Leslie Mann ("Timecode," "George of the Jungle") shows up as his home hungry fiancée, but her character's motivation is either too simple or wishy-washy to provide many laughs.

While one can appreciate where the filmmakers were trying to take the story in concept, the execution simply isn't that inspired or funny. Coupled with the dreaded presence of Green's inane style of humor and acting and the film simply doesn't have a chance at succeeding. Although it offers a few amusing moments here and there, for the most part this comedy isn't smart enough to pass muster, let alone graduate to any sort of accolades. "Stealing Harvard" rates as just a 2.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 9, 2002 / Posted September 13, 2002

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