If you’re at all familiar with director Billy Kent’s previous film, 2006’s The Oh in Ohio, then his latest effort, HairBrained, will seem like an even greater disappointment. An oddly paced film revolving around mismatched underdogs wading through an overwhelming miasma of collegiate clichés feels far removed from the real world and isn’t charming or engaging enough to achieve the status of a situational parody or satire. Instead, Kent’s screenplay, which was co-written with Sarah Bird and Adam Wierzbianski, presents itself as a potential gimmick that soon reveals itself as nothing more than a cobbled together formula of wan dramatic tension with a grating finale that’s egregiously stale.
Eli Pettifog (Alex Wolff) is a 13 year old genius that’s skipped five grades and is about to enter his freshmen year in college. Sporting an unkempt bowl of gnarly, black hair, Eli is an awkward sight to behold, the product of a down and out home life run by his unstable single mom, Sheila (Parker Posey). As he arrives at the underwhelming campus of Whittier College in upstate New York, we learn that Eli’s dream was actually to get into Harvard, an entity which denied his application. The glum lad befriends his polar opposite, a fortysomething nontraditional student, Leo Searly (Brendan Fraser), who seems to have enrolled in school again to escape life, having left behind a career, marriage, and tiny daughter years and years ago. Eli stumbles into a Mastermind Team Competition (a Knowledge Bowl-ish random trivia competition), and soon finagles himself onto the Whittier team, which soon becomes an actual contender since Eli is a veritable genius, never stumped once by any question. Ever. His romance with a high school townie (Julia Garner) adds to the drama as his team’s ascent soon has them facing the undefeated Harvard team, where he receives an offer from a (creepy) secret society member (Austin Pendleton) that may force Eli to reconfigure his alliance.
Besides a slight chuckle here and there, HairBrained feels incredibly forced, playing like the ho-hum cousin of something like the 2000 made-for-TV film Cheaters (which headlined Jena Malone). The notion of genius seems to be relegated to the random knowledge of trivia, and that’s certainly only one of many questionable details in a film that’s not sure what it’s trying to be. The inclusion of an incredibly dowdy Brendan Fraser sheds an even more grotesque light on the proceedings when we realize that the presence of his character isn’t even necessary, wasting our time with a subplot involving his estranged daughter attending the same college.
Kent’s previous film was the oddly charming Parker Posey starrer The Oh in Ohio, and the opening sequence, featuring Posey, promises similar pleasures. However, that promise dissipates quickly, and Posey only returns for a very brief end-credit cameo. Their previous union, which was a sexually progressive comedy, makes HairBrained play like a strangely adolescent offering, squandering its tiny gleams of talent for an onslaught of strained scenarios. Knowledge is power, generally speaking. Here, it’s a notion exploited for deflating effect.
★ / ☆☆☆☆☆