The original Seuss story is a wonderful--albeit simple
--children's tale about two bored kids left alone in their house on a cold wet day. They're visited by a six-foot-tall talking adventure-seeking feline who's looking for a little fun (OK maybe a lot of fun). Against the warnings of the children's seriously repressed pet goldfish the Cat (with the help of a couple of troll doll look-a-likes called Thing One and Thing Two) turns the house upside down then puts it all right-side-up again before the kids' mother gets home. The question for Hollywood is how to turn a story like this one that's left an indelible impression on millions of readers young and old since 1957 into a major motion picture? While the film thankfully keeps to this original's plot talking fish and all it obviously tries to flesh things out adding some new characters and tacking on a few life lessons. The kids now have very distinct personalities: Wild older brother Conrad (Spencer Breslin) plays fast and loose with the rules while sister Sally (Dakota Fanning) an uptight control freak has driven all her friends away with her rigidity. Their mother Joan (Kelly Preston) works at the town's real estate office run by the anal retentive Mr. Humberfloob (Sean Hayes) and she's dating the guy next door Quinn (Alec Baldwin) a superficial scumbag who wants to send Conrad to military school. On the particular cold wet day in question Joan leaves instructions not to mess up the house since she's having an important business meet-and-greet there later that night. When the Cat (Mike Myers) arrives he quickly assures Sally and Conrad they can have all the fun they want and nothing bad will happen. Ignoring vocal opposition from the Fish (voiced by Hayes) the Cat quickly puts into motion a series of events that will a) prove his point b) destroy the house and c) teach the kids a sugary-sweet but valuable lesson about being responsible while living life to the fullest.
Just as Jim Carrey immortalized the Grinch Mike Myers seems born to play the Cat in the oversized red-and-white striped hat--he has the sly slightly sarcastic wholly anarchistic thing down cold. Myers' impersonations of a redneck Cat mechanic (with requisite visible butt crack) an infomercial Cat host and a zany British Cat chef are outrageous as are the hilarious little asides he spouts although they'll probably go over kids' heads: "Well sure [the Fish] can talk but is he really saying anything? No not really." But even though Myers has some fun moments he just isn't the Barney type and when he turns on the come-on-kids-let's-have-fun charm and adopts a dopey laugh he seems uncomfortable. As for the kids Fanning and Breslin (Disney's The Kid) do a fine job reacting to the wackiness the Cat surrounds them with although Fanning basically plays the same uptight character she created in the recent Uptown Girls. Of the supporting players Baldwin has the most fun as the villainous Quinn a bad-guy role that while a little superfluous gives Baldwin plenty of opportunities to chew the scenery. Hayes is also good in his dual role; he stamps Humberfloob indelibly on our brains then kicks butt as the voice of the beleaguered Fish.
It must have been a no-brainer for producer Brian Grazer to do another Dr. Seuss adaptation after all the fun magic and profits the 2000 hit How the Grinch Stole Christmas generated. With Cat in the Hat however he didn't collaborate with his usual directing partner the Grinch's Ron Howard. Instead Grazer took a chance on first-time director Bo Welch who previously served as production designer on Tim Burton's Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and has three Oscar nods to his credit for production design on other films. Welch certainly takes his quirky cue from Burton when it comes to the look of Cat in the Hat especially Sally and Conrad's suburban Southern California neighborhood with its lilac frames and blue roofs. The gadgets are cool too from the Cat's Super Luxurious Omnidirectional Whatchamajigger or S.L.O.W vehicle to the Dynamic Industrial Renovating Tractormajigger or D.I.R.T. mobile for cleaning up the house. When we enter the Cat's bizarre world though the film's Seussian look starts to have problems possibly because there's nothing of this place in the original book. Hidden within the feline's magical crate the Cat's world can produce "the mother of all messes " and in keeping with that purpose there's some effort at making it look like a fragmented Cubist painting. But it's more plastic than Picasso and in the end it's about as interesting as a Universal Theme Park ride (a fact the movie actually mentions).
Let's just say there aren't any surprises in Stealing Harvard. You pretty much know what you are in for when you sit down. John Plummer (Jason Lee) is a good-hearted fellow who just wants to marry his longtime fiancée Elaine Warner (Leslie Mann). He works hard for her father (Dennis Farina) at a medical supply store but Mr. Warner is less than happy with his future son-in-law. Still John finally gets his wish when he and Elaine reach the $30 000 mark she made them save so they could marry and buy their dream house. That's it? We can go home now? Alas no. A snag in their plans comes when John's niece Noreen (Tammy Blanchard) gets accepted to Harvard and his trailer-trash sister Patty (Megan Mullally) reminds him of his promise to help pay for Noreen's education--to the tune of $29 800. D'oh! Since John can't disappoint Elaine and Noreen he asks his best friend Duff (Tom Green) to help him try to get hold of another 30 grand. Duff agrees of course but accomplishing this feat legitimately is simply not an option. As Duff's plans to turn them into petty criminals fail each and every time John becomes increasingly desperate. What will he do? And more importantly do we care?
As an actor Jason Lee has made some curious choices. Sticking with director Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy Dogma) has been a smart move as well as scooping up a choice role in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. But he's made some pretty bad choices as well--Kissing A Fool Big Trouble and now Stealing Harvard. The material is way beneath him. John is too milquetoast for Lee's smart-ass style and it doesn't suit him at all. There is another reason Lee should have just walked away from this one--being in a movie with Tom Green. Green's Duff does manage to elicit a few laughs here and there but the comic actor who once touched a very eclectic funny bone in many people has now become a parody of himself. And an annoying one at that. Mann (George of the Jungle) does some interesting things with her character Elaine. You don't really like the uptight daddy's girl much in the beginning but then she blossoms and changes showing Mann's comic abilities nicely. John C. McGinley as the detective who goes after the two boneheads and Mullally as the slutty Patty both turn in funny performances. Farina however is completely wasted which is a shame.
OK so there are a few times in Stealing Harvard where you actually laugh out loud. You've seen most of them in the trailer but they are funny nonetheless. Duff and John trying to choose their code names Duff getting smashed up against the window John dressed as a woman. There are also a couple of moments you don't see in the trailer that kind of make you chuckle like when McGinley's detective explains what he actually uses the toothbrush for that Duff put in his mouth and pretty much all the scenes with Mullally. They are however few and far between. For the most part Harvard sticks to its insipid and completely ridiculous script and run-of-the-mill direction by Kids In the Hall alum Bruce McCulloch. For us hardened critics it's hard to have our intelligence insulted even for a forced laugh. But for some out there this could just be the kind of mindless entertainment they crave.
The film spans the life of John Nash (Russell Crowe)-from mathematical prodigy to delusional schizophrenic to Nobel Prize winner. We first meet John in 1948 and he is entering Princeton University as a graduate student. He rarely goes to class and calculates his mathematical theories on dorm room and library windows. Most of his colleagues steer clear of him except his roommate Charles (Paul Bettany) who tries to lighten him up. John eventually closes in on a hypothesis for an economic theory and becomes a star in the math world. He lands a prestigious position at MIT meets his wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) and consults for the Pentagon cracking impossible codes no one else can. He meets William Parcher (Ed Harris) a CIA agent who brings John in on a top-secret government operation to catch Russian spies--or so we think. Unbeknownst to those around him Nash's "beautiful mind" is descending into madness and his grip on reality is fading. Alicia gets him psychiatric help but the drugs and shock therapy dull him so senselessly it's painful to watch. All Nash wants is his mind back so he begins to fight his illness on his own terms. Through the years John's delusions don't necessarily go away but he learns to deal with them sanely. More importantly in Nash's later life he finally gains the respect and admiration he deserves from his peers.
We all know the man can act but Crowe is truly a wonder in this film. He really gets under Nash's skin having obviously studied the real-life mathematician's movements and mannerisms carefully. From Nash's walk to the twitches of the mouth to the eyes that never stop moving he fleshes out a character that melds perfectly with the real Nash. Crowe shows us the horror of being locked in a mind that works brilliantly yet won't let him see things normally. It's a tour de force performance and one richly deserving an Oscar. The other standout in Mind has to be the stunning Connelly. Over the years she's quietly been turning in stellar performances in such films as Requiem for a Dream and Pollock but as Nash's beleaguered wife Alicia she finally gets to shine. At times you are wondering what the heck a beauty like her sees in the weird Nash but Connelly convincingly portrays a woman in love with a man whose mind is great if troubled. Witnessing her torment and anguish over her husband's debilitating illness was moving. In the supporting roles both Harris as the hardened agent and Bettany (so good in this year's A Knight's Tale) as Nash's unconventional friend are also excellent.
A Beautiful Mind quite possibly could be the best thing Ron Howard has ever directed. Not to say he hasn't helmed some very good films such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas or Apollo 13 but Howard has done things in this movie he's never done before. In delving into the mind of a paranoid-schizophrenic he doesn't simply show us a crazy person but lets us experience the madness right along with Nash. Also much like Good Will Hunting Howard makes calculating impossible mathematical problems exciting especially when we are looking at the numbers from Nash's perspective. It seems Howard has matured in his directing style. The film was lush to look at where he uses shadows and light in an amazing way. The script based on a book by Sylvia Nasar was brilliant as well. A great scene has Nash who isn't sure if who he's seeing is real or not turn to a student and ask "Do you see that person there?" When the answer is yes he replies "Good. I'm always wary about people I don't know." The only drawback is the film could have been about a half-hour shorter but no matter. 'Tis the season for 2½ hour movies.