Collegiate comedies tend to follow in the footsteps of Animal House; a wild comic romp where the passionate underdogs triumph over the snobby elites. But what if it's the underdog that has all of the advantages? Does the dynamic still work? And does it make for a funny film when the jokes are punching down rather than up? In the case of Billy Kent's college coming-of-age flick, HairBrained, the answer is a resounding "No".
Kent, who last directed the sexually charged The Oh in Ohio, goes in a totally different direction with HairBrained, a film about a 14-year-old, wild-haired genius named Eli Pettifog (Alex Wolff). Having skipped five grades, Eli is rejected by Harvard and thus is forced to attend crappy Whittman College. His mother (Parker Posey, a Kent favorite) doesn't seem to care about her son all that much, dumping him at the bus depot before speeding off. An outcast from the moment he steps foot on campus, Eli is mocked for his gigantic, unkempt afro (it "protects his brain" is the only given reason for it) and his obvious intellect. Eli quickly makes friends with a middle-aged loser Leo Searly (Brendan Fraser) enrolling as a freshman to hook up with young chicks, and begins to make eyes with a pretty townie (Julia Garner) who doesn't mind that his hair is bigger than her entire body.
Of course there are also bullies, or bully, in this case, but Eli doesn't suffer much in the way of torment. Instead he's focused on getting revenge on Harvard for rejecting him, and so he joins the school's pitiful Collegiate Mastermind Team in hopes of winning the championship. Answering all of the questions himself, Eli becomes a campus hero, gets hit on by hot co-eds, experiences first love and engages in rowdy acts done in a totally PG-13 way.
The big problem is that Kent and his screenwriters seem unsure of what they want the film to be, and thus never fully commit to any aspect of it. There's isn't much partying to speak of, so the film isn't especially raucous, nor is there any sort of message that Eli seems to learn. He makes friends easily and falls in and out of relationships without much struggle, so it's tough to identify with him as some sort of outsider. The film isn't clear whether it wants to bash Ivy League students or revere them, and doesn't seem to know how to characterize Eli's amazing intellectual gifts. More often than not he comes off as arrogant rather than confident, which would be okay if this was a film about Eli learning to cope with his talent, but it's not.
None of the supporting characters are written with much personality, and are so vague they don't even qualify as stereotypes of the genre. This is especially terrible considering the wealth of talent wasted on minor roles. Posey has two scenes of little consequence; Garner is saddled with a bland love interest character, while the always-terrific Fred Melamed barely registers as a bookie friend of Leo's. This is something that probably doesn't get said too often, but Fraser is on another level compared to everybody else in the film, and adds a little bit of depth to Leo as we learn of his fractured family and struggle with personal demons. Fraser saves many of the scenes he shares with Wolff, who seems unprepared to carry a lead role.
As a buddy comedy, HairBrained has a few precious moments of male bonding between Fraser and Wolff, but their mismatched friendship yields few laughs and never feels genuine.