With Harvard Man, writer-director James Toback returns to his roots...in more ways than one. Not only does he admittedly draw on his own collegiate experiences with acid, but he also reuses plot elements from his first produced script, The Gambler, the 1974 James Caan vehicle directed by Karel Reisz. (Similar material also showed up in his more recent Black and White).
Harvard Man starts off, literally, with a Big Bang (to appropriate the title of another Toback film)--a major selling point of the project that might be called "Boffing Buffy." That is, we meet Alan Jensen (Adrian Grenier), our hero, in mid-fuck with his girlfriend Cindy Bandolini (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Actually, as we soon find out, she's only one of his girlfriends. He's also having an affair with Chesney Cort (Joey Lauren Adams), a philosophy professor who lectures decked out in outfits more provocative than any likely to be seen on real-world profs.
Alan, we learn, is a drifting, amoral sort. He's a star player on the basketball team--though frankly he looks too short for the gig--and a studmuffin. But what is the meaning of it all? And what is love?
Our hero could use a bit of divine inspiration, and it's an act of God that gives his life some meaning: His family home, back in the Midwest, is wiped out by a tornado, and his parents are suddenly living in a high school gym with about 50 other people. If only he could figure out a way to raise the $100,000 they need to rebuild their lives...
It occurs to him that maybe Cindy's dad (Gianni Russo, only occasionally seen since the days when he played Carlo, Connie Corleone's turncoat husband, in the Godfather films), a major-league mob boss, might lend him the money. Of course, there's a catch: Alan has to throw the upcoming Harvard-Holy Cross game, in which his team is the favorite. You'd have to be an idiot to get involved with the likes of Cindy's dad, but even Harvard men have been known to act like idiots now and then, and, in Alan's case, he does it now, then and in between.
That's the setup, but things turn out way more complicated than either Alan or the audience is initially led to believe, with plot twists (including one central and hugely implausible coincidence) driving the story. In the middle of this high-stress situation, Alan decides it would be a good time to experiment with acid, i.e., LSD-25 (in an immediate environment that is almost suicidally nonconducive to a good trip). A wacky chemistry major claims to have synthesized the real thing, from the original Sandoz formula, not any of that cheap, speed-riddled pseudo-acid that dominates the psychedelic market these days. She gives him three doses, and he decides to drop all three at once. On an airplane. Traveling by himself.
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At this point, we must digress to pick a major nit. Alan's friend tells him that each of these doses is 5,000 micrograms. While it is refreshing that Toback--who claims to have based this on his own marathon acid trip back in 1965--remembered that it's "micrograms," not "milligrams," as some other films have fallaciously put it, he is still off by a factor of at least 10. That is, in the '60s, when there was first-rate, nearly pharmaceutical-grade acid available, a standard dose was about 250 micrograms; 500 was considered a super-dose; 5,000 would have been insane.
Thanks to the miracle of modern special effects, though, Toback does nail the visual aspects as well as they've ever been done. Faces twist and contort, and paintings bubble with movement. Despite limited access to the campus, he also captures the feel of Cambridge convincingly through a combination of location shooting and interior stand-ins.
The plot contrivances become a bit much to swallow by the end, and it's hard to sympathize with Alan, who, like so many Toback protagonists, is such a complete asshole. (This auteur has never denied the autobiographical aspects of his work.)
Inevitably, there is some sense of temporal dislocation. That is, Toback has taken a distinctly '60s-ish personal experience and done his best to transplant it into the current, vastly different, cultural milieu. Harvard Man is a semi-throwback, a reminiscence without nostalgia or sentimentality.