“Revenge of the Nerds” meets “Back to School” via “Doogie Howser, M.D.” in “HairBrained,” a campus comedy that tries to transcend its many formulaic elements with an insufficient dose of absurdism. This follow-up feature from the writing-directing team behind 2006’s “The Oh in Ohio” seems unlikely to repeat that film’s modest sleeper success, even with the presence of sometime franchise king Brendan Fraser as the past-40 late bloomer who’s an incoming freshman alongside Alex Wolff’s 13-year-old prodigy. Limited U.S. theatrical launch Feb. 28 will be just a brief prelude for imminent better prospects in home formats.
Dropped by his “terrible mother” at the bus station (it’s depressing straight off to see Parker Posey exit the movie after two minutes), child genius Eli Pettifog (Wolff) has already lowered his expectations for college life, having settled for “the 37th best small liberal-arts college on the East Coast” after having been rejected by his dream school, Harvard. Beyond his age, an unruly dust mop of hair ensures he won’t fit in easily — not that he seems interested in trying. Nonetheless, he immediately attracts an uninvited social mentor of sorts in over-the-hill party animal Leo (Fraser), here for no obvious reason after apparently gambling away a business, home, marriage and family.
Noticing that a team from Harvard is coming to compete in something called “College Masterminds” (“a quiz show like ‘Jeopardy!’ without money”), Eli attempts to bond with the Ivy League visitors, but is so cruelly rebuffed he vows vengeance. That means bulldozing his way into the Whittman U. team’s captaincy — which is fine by the current, clueless members — and singlehandedly driving them to the championships where he can kick Harvard butt.
So basically “HairBrained” is a competition comedy in the realm of “Bring It On,” et al., though the competitor skills showcased are negated by the deliberate silliness of the event itself (“Mastermind” answers include such senseless trivia as, “Banging your head against the wall burns 150 calories per hour”), and the contestants are mild satirical stereotypes. Underdeveloped subplots include romances for Eli (with teenage townie Julia Garner) and Leo (with fellow student Josefina Scaglione), Eli’s bullying by a clownish jock (Michael Oberholtzer), his attempted seduction by the latter’s princessy g.f. (Elisabeth Hower), and Leo’s awkward reunion with the daughter (Lizzy DeClement) he’d abandoned years ago.
While passably entertaining, “HairBrained” can never quite decide whether to play its genre conventions relatively straight, or for meta-comedic purposes. The film doesn’t quite have the verve or originality to capitalize on its spasmodic absurdist impulses, leaving the whole in a rather innocuous middle ground despite all efforts at quirkiness. The cast is amiable enough, although it’s disappointing that Fraser is asked to be nothing more — in fact, his character is so irrelevant to the central narrative that you could extract him whole, and the sole logistical gap resulting would be, “Now who drives the team to their matches?