This is the wobbly, wonky story of a 13-year-old wunderkind named Eli Pettifog who goes to a college in upstate New York. Eli is a genius. As played by Alex Wolff, he is also a geek, with a puny, lath-legged frame topped by about 20 pounds of uncombed hair that looks like a gigantic wad of peat moss. Understandably, he becomes an instant campus punching bag.
Written by: Sarah Bird and Billy Kent
Directed by: Billy Kent
Starring: Alex Wolff, Brendan Fraser and Julia Garner
Running time: 106 min.
Salvation comes in two sizes: Eli’s encyclopedic knowledge of everything from science to baseball that makes him a natural for the school’s collegiate mastermind program that hasn’t won a contest since 1971 and his unlikely bond with the school’s oldest freshman—an overweight slob, divorced business failure, parental flop and social dropout named Leo Searly, played with uncommon muffin-dough flab and bulbous eyes by the usually buff Brendan Fraser. So much sacrifice for the sake of comic departure should be rewarded with a script that somehow pays off, but this go-to actor just hangs around with nothing to do but act as a groupie for his new best friend. So the two most maladjusted freshmen at Whittman—the youngest and the oldest—cope in ways that are meant to be humorous but seldom force so much as a weak grin.
Eli always dreamed of going to Harvard, but the school rejected him. After one Whittman defeat, the three most arrogant Harvard players in the brain game insult, assault and knock Eli to the ground, turning him against his favorite university and driving him to the ultimate revenge—joining the Whittman team and swearing his life to the destruction of Harvard’s collegiate masterminds. (Sort of like Jeopardy minus the financial incentive.)
With lazy Leo as the team chauffeur, financier and cheerleader, Eli propels Whittman to unprecedented academic glory. Soon they’re defeating M. I. T., Vassar, Amherst and N.Y.U. After exposing the Yale Bulldogs for cheating with the use of earphones, the Whittman team finally comes face to face with the dreaded Harvard snobs in the 49th annual championship finals. The movie is called HairBrained because of Eli’s humongous pile of hair that protects his brain and because his team is the Whittman Hares. So much for cleverness.
The movie drags on, wedging the team’s personal problems between Eli’s career dilemmas: Will he accept the offer of a Harvard scholarship and wreck his school’s chances of finally winning the big trophy? In the end, college has an effect on everyone. Eli achieves rock star status through intellect, and Leo reunites with his estranged daughter when she becomes a fellow student, at last learning the value of responsibility. Alas, the fragmented messages from sluggish director Billy Kent and disorganized screenwriter Adam Wierzbianski are sent too late to save the movie from terminal trivia and seem to arrive by horse and carriage.
It’s nice to see a movie about kids that extols the virtues of intelligence over sex, sports, bad music, ugly clothes and tattoos, but aside from some nice autumnal shots of Ivy League college campuses, there’s nothing in HairBrained to sustain much interest. You’ll have to see it for yourself to find out who wins the 49th Annual Collegiate Masterminds championship, but take my advice: Don’t rush.