Film Review: HairBrained

Poorly thought-out serio-comedy that attempts to satirize college quiz bowls, focusing on a 13-year-old prodigy at a fourth-rate college.

Filmmaker Billy Kent's indie sex comedy The Oh in Ohio (2006) met with largely negative reviews except for, notably, a couple of cultural flagships like The New York Times and Variety, neither of them stupid. What is it they saw that eluded most of the rest of the country? I can't say, but whatever it is, it's certainly not present in his second movie.

The pun-nishingly titled HairBrained —and the groan that phrase elicits is nothing compared to those generated by this harebrained film—takes place in the world of collegiate quiz-bowl competitions and seems to see itself as in the vein of Jeffrey Blitz's poignant comedy-drama Rocket Science (2007), about an underdog high-school debater, or Alexander Payne's satire Election (1999), about a high-school election as political microcosm. Unfortunately, director and co-writer Kent can't decide between a naturalistic tone or one of over-the-top farce, and neither pole of this movie is very good.

Eli Pettifog (former Nickelodeon star Alex Wolff, acquitting himself as a confident deadpan actor) is a 13-year-old prodigy starting freshman year at Whittman College, "the 37th-best small liberal-arts college on the East Coast." True to this claim, the ramshackle school is consistently shown as a joke of a place—yet later we're told its tuition is an unlikely $50,000 a year, just one of a long string of discordant points in a poorly thought-out story. On his first day he meets "late bloomer" Leo Searly (Brendan Fraser), a former businessman who's left home and family to go back to college. He's just starting school, yet later we learn he left his family when his daughter, now college-age, was seven—another point in that long, discordant string.

Taking his cue, it seems, from that cinematic trope the Magical Negro, Leo turns out to be the Magical Caucasian, giving the bullied Eli support, encouragement and friendship—and if a friendship between a 13-year-old and a forty-something is odd enough, the movie later gives him a groupie, adult college student Eve (Elisabeth Hower), who either is offering him statutory rape or teasing that she's offering him statutory rape. What were the filmmakers thinking?

Compounding matters is that nothing in the story—about Eli virtually singlehandedly taking the Whittman Warring Hares to the College Mastermind nationals—requires him to be 13 or to have a giant mop of hair. Nothing. An 18-year-old prodigy would have been the same story—and obviated the need to create a 15-year-old prodigy, Shauna (Julia Garner), to be his newfound girlfriend. Even worse is the apparent theme of the movie, which seems to be that of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"—that people only love you when you're useful to them.

Add in the inane questions asked on “College Mastermind”—the average age of a barista in Italy?—and a bully-turned-fan (Michael Oberholtzer) who sits in the audience of one match dressed like a giant hare, as if this were the brain-dead version of Donnie Darko, and this whole misbegotten enterprise collapses in on itself.

The Oh in Ohio star Parker Posey, bookending the film in two scenes, is as charismatic as always playing Eli's dissipated mom, whose leopard stretch pants spell groupie-gone-old and whose eyes carry a weariness that even a private smile—a smile to herself, alone in a car—can't hide. If only the rest of the movie matched that great first scene.