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.
Several critics are suggesting that with Training Day, Denzel Washington may be indirectly giving young actors some memorable training in
their craft. Playing a bad guy for the first time, Washington gives what
Washington Post writer Megan Rosenfeld calls a "masterly performance"
and what Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal calls "the
performance of the year." "He's positively riveting," comments Lou Lumenick
in the New York Post. Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times
writes that Washington's "powerhouse virtuosity will almost guarantee
him an Oscar nomination." Only Geoff Pevere in the Toronto Star
differs from his colleagues. Washington, he maintains, "no longer acts
with other performers, he acts at them," and his character in the movie
"feels about as 'street' as a Beverly Hills ghetto." While most of the
reviews are filled with praise for the movie on almost every level, there
are a number of other dissents. Carey Rickey in the Philadelphia Inquirer
writes: "Training Day is difficult to swallow and harder still to
stomach. It emphasizes the sensational rather than the ethical aspects of
police corruption." Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times tags the
following "footnote" onto his mostly positive review of the movie: "Will
audiences accept this movie in the current climate, when cops and firemen
are hailed as heroes? I think maybe so; I think by delaying the movie's
opening two weeks, Warner Bros. sidestepped a potential backlash. And
Denzel's performance is sure to generate strong word-of-mouth. Second
question: It's been asked if violent movies will become rare in these sad
days after the terrorism. The box-office performance of Training Day
may provide the answer."