×

Film Review: ‘HairBrained’

Lightning doesn't strike twice for the writing-directing team behind 'The Oh in Ohio.'

With:

Brendan Fraser, Alex Wolff, Julia Garner, Parker Posey, Austin Pendleton, Elisabeth Hower, Michael Oberholtzer, Robin de Jesus, Greta Lee, Teddy Bergman, Toby Huss, Josefina Scaglione, Kimiko Glenn, Fred Melamed, Lizzy DeClement.

“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.

Popular on Variety

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?

Film Review: 'HairBrained'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Feb. 25, 2014. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production:

A Vertical Entertainment release of a Love Lane Pictures presentation of a Sarah Bird production. Produced by Bird, Avram Ludwig, Billy Kent. Executive producers, Stephanie Ingrassia, Tim Ingrassia, Stacy Blain, Jason Mraz.

Crew:

Directed by Billy Kent. Screenplay, Adam Wierzbianski, from a story by Wierzbianski, Sarah Bird, Kent. Camera (color, HD), Charlie Libin; editor, Paul Bertino; music, The Newton Brothers; production designer, Chris Trujillo; art director, Shiloh Kidd; set decorator, Scott Kuzio; sound, Allison Jackson; supervising sound editor, Glenfield Payne; re-recording mixer, Dominic Tavella; assistant directors, Jonathan Shoemaker, Charles Zalben; casting, David Caparelliotis, Mele Nagler. 

With:

Brendan Fraser, Alex Wolff, Julia Garner, Parker Posey, Austin Pendleton, Elisabeth Hower, Michael Oberholtzer, Robin de Jesus, Greta Lee, Teddy Bergman, Toby Huss, Josefina Scaglione, Kimiko Glenn, Fred Melamed, Lizzy DeClement.

More Film

  • My Salinger Year

    Berlin Film Festival to Open With Sigourney Weaver, Margaret Qualley Starrer 'My Salinger Year'

    The 70th edition of the Berlinale will open with Philippe Falardeau’s anticipated “My Salinger Year,” headlined by a powerful female duo, Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley. Set in New York’s literary world in the 90’s, the coming-of-age-story is based on Joanna Rakoff’s international bestseller and follows Joanna (Qualley), who leaves graduate school to pursue her [...]

  • Bad Hair

    'Bad Hair': Film Review

    The year is 1989 and New Jack Swing is about to push black culture from the margins to the mainstream. The question for the black employees of Culture, the music TV station at the center of writer-director Justin Simien’s delightfully macabre horror-dramedy “Bad Hair,” is what image do they — and their white executive Grant [...]

  • Bad Hair

    Justin Simien's 'Bad Hair' is a Tribute to Exploited Black Women Everywhere, Director Says

    Deeply personal but indulgently campy, Justin Simien’s Sundance opener “Bad Hair” is a genre-blending horror show that the director said serves as a tribute to the struggles of black women. The mind behind  “Dear White People” staged the world premiere for the project at Park City’s Ray Theater on Thursday night, before a cast that [...]

  • Taylor Swift: Miss Americana

    'Taylor Swift: Miss Americana': Film Review

    Fly-on-the-wall portraits of pop-music stars used to be dominated by, you know, pop music. The life and personality and woe-is-me-I’m-caught-in-the-media-fishbowl spectacle of the star herself was part of the equation, yet all that stuff had a way of dancing around the edges. Now, though, it’s front and center. In “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana,” we catch [...]

  • Taylor Swift attends the premiere of

    Sundance Crowd Goes Wild as Taylor Swift Becomes Powerful Voice of Trump Resistance

    At the outset of the first screening of the documentary “Miss Americana” Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival, it was clear at the outset that it was not necessarily Taylor Swift’s core audience filling the Eccles Theater for the premiere. The opening scene has Swift trying to write a song at the piano while [...]

  • wanda Imax China

    China Closes Thousands of Theaters in Response to Coronavirus Outbreak

    China closed swathes of cinemas on Friday in response to the outbreak of novel coronavirus, which started in the city of Wuhan and has now killed 26 people. The closures come a day after the distributors and producers of the seven major blockbusters that had expected to launch from Jan. 25 cancelled their films’ releases. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content