By Josh Bell ’02
As payback, a 14-year-old college freshman tries to defeat Harvard in a quiz bowl-like championship. [Film] Amherst may not be “the 37th-best liberal arts college on the East Coast,” but Amherst alumni will find plenty to relate to at the fictional Whittman College. HairBrained, produced and co-written by Sarah Bird ’87, is set at Whittman, where 14-year-old child prodigy Eli Pettifog (Alex Wolff) is a misunderstood freshman. Indifferently parented by his unstable mom (Parker Posey), Eli has spent his life dreaming of attending Harvard, but he ends up at Whittman when Harvard rejects his application. With his giant mess of curly hair and scrawny frame, Eli is initially an outcast; his only friend is middle-aged gambling addict Leo Searly (Brendan Fraser), who’s decided to start over as a college freshman.
Eli Pettifog (Alex Wolff) is a prodigy who befriends middle-aged gambling addict Leo Searly (Brendan Fraser).
Eli soon finds his calling in the quiz bowl-like Collegiate Mastermind, turning the school’s losing team into a powerhouse. He starts dating cute townie teenager Shauna (Julia Garner), becomes a campus celebrity and sets his sights on revenge, aiming to defeat Harvard in the Collegiate Mastermind national championships.
What follows draws heavily from underdog sports movies and slobs-vs.-snobs comedies such as Animal House, but Bird and co-writers Adam Wierzbianski and Billy Kent (who also directed) focus equally on character development, so that even though Eli’s journey from loser to champion is mostly predictable, it’s still enjoyable to watch him get there.
Wolff gives a subdued but very funny performance, making all of Eli’s quirks into believable (and sometimes tragic) character traits. Fraser, who often gets saddled with buffoonish roles, brings an impressive degree of pathos to Leo, who never ends up as a stereotypical man-child, even when he’s hitting on college students half his age. And Garner, whose role is more limited, imbues Shauna with a soulful independence. Familiar faces Posey, Fred Melamed and Toby Huss make memorable impressions in small roles.
Although Whittman isn’t Amherst (and its Collegiate Mastermind team actually defeats Amherst at one point), it does have a similar feel, with its small-town New England setting, offbeat student clubs and misguided Ivy League envy.
That showdown proves underwhelming, but it fits with the low-key tone that Bird (left) and her collaborators have created. Eli and Leo come through the experience having learned and grown a bit, but not so much that the movie comes off as heavy-handed or overly sentimental. Its life lessons are as subdued as its comedy, making for a perfectly unassuming capper to this charming, ramshackle movie.
Josh Bell ’02 is the Las Vegas Weekly film editor.