Hairbrained: Film Review

Vertical Entertainment
A likeable if familiar underdog tale

Alex Wolff plays a kid genius in Billy Kent's campus comedy.

A teen genius inspires a campus full of dolts in Hairbrained, Billy Kent's comedy about a nerd who finds acceptance through an obscure academic quiz contest. More conventional and well-rounded than Kent's debut, 2006's The Oh in Ohio (that film's star Parker Posey makes a brief appearance here), the picture is wholly likeable but, even with its hero's attention-getting coiffure, will be easy to overlook in a barely-there theatrical release.

Naked Brothers Band member Alex Wolff stars as Eli Pettifog, a 13 year-old misfit prodigy who does himself no favors by wearing his hair in a frizzy nimbus so overgrown even Reggie Watts might take note. He's defiant when mocked for the 'do, insisting that it protects his precious brain. (Some viewers will see a too-overt attempt here at Napoleon Dynamite-style quirkiness.)

Entering college years ahead of schedule, Eli gets no relief from schoolyard bullying: Though he had his heart set on Harvard, he has to make do with Whittman College, whose gates are adorned with the motto, "In Mediocrity We Thrive." Dorm neighbor Leo Searly (Brendan Fraser) epitomizes that mindset: A "mature student" (read: middle-aged failure) in bad clothes, he nevertheless helps the boy navigate a student body of mean jocks and intimidating girls. When Eli stumbles across the "Collegiate Mastermind" league, Leo becomes the Whittman team's unofficial coach.

Eli's brain is computer-like enough that he literally knows every answer this contest demands of him, and the student body, accustomed to loss in every competitive arena, latches onto their new pet genius. Wolff is enjoyable as the suddenly-cocky kid, grandstanding with air-karate moves and nerd cool. When he decides that the school he longed to attend is now the one he must beat in Mastermind, he calmly declares "I now hate Harvard with the fanatical rage of a freedom fighter."

The film's presentation of Eli's campaign, though, is a good deal less confident. Showdowns that could be dramatic (like one with cheating opponents at Yale) conclude too quickly or with a thud; there and elsewhere, the plotting is clumsy enough one wonders if big chunks of story were lost in the editing room. Adam Wierzbianski's script makes only a perfunctory show of third-act conflict; trouble between Eli and his adorable townie girlfriend (Julia Garner), or between Leo and his estranged family, resolves almost as quickly as it arises. Only Eli's inflating ego offers any real obstacle to the story's happy conclusion, barring one or two contrivances that even the script doesn't seem to take seriously.

 

Production Company: Love Lane Pictures

Cast: Brendan Fraser, Alex Wolff, Julia Garner, Parker Posey, Austin Pendleton, Elisabeth Hower, Michael Oberholtzer, Robin de Jesus, Greta Lee, Teddy Bergman, Toby Huss, Kimiko Glenn, Josefina Scaglione, Fred Melamed

Director: Billy Kent

Screenwriter: Adam Wierzbianski

Producers: Sarah Bird, Avram Ludwig, Billy Kent

Executive producers: Stephanie Ingrassia, Tim Ingrassia, Stacy Blain, Jason Mraz

Director of photography: Charlie Libin

Production designer: Chris Trujillo

Music: The Newton Brothers

Costume designer: Liz Vastola

Editor: Paul Bertino

No rating, 96 minutes

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