When it comes to comedy, the knife is tiny. There’s a very short distance between the cutting edge and the big dull middle of the blade. People slide down that slope all the time without knowing it, but since it’s so hard to quantify the essence of humor, people sometimes go for years without finding out they’ve slipped.
Somebody needs to tell Bruce McCulloch, who started out with the late, great Toronto sketch comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall. With an off-kilter love for hockey hair and broad satire, McCulloch was doing fine until the Kids shut down. When the others scattered to various TV acting jobs, McCulloch became a director.
It was an admirable leap in theory, but McCulloch’s comedic talents just aren’t translating to his new job. His first two films—1998’s Dog Park and 1999’s Superstar—both needed a whole lot more direction before they were ready to be movies. There were laughs, but they were full of half-baked ideas and a disturbing lack of flow that suggested comedy was occurring in spite of McCulloch. Individual actors (Natasha Henstridge in the first, Will Ferrell in the second) made bigger impressions than anything under McCulloch’s direct control.
Three years later, ain’t a damn thing changed in Stealing Harvard, his newest effort. It’s tempting to slag this dull, desperately unfunny film as another disaster from Tom Green, but the mouth-breathing MTV mongol has only a supporting role here, and he’s not completely unwatchable. The blame for this one falls on McCulloch, who didn’t muzzle Green’s worst instincts while also allowing his movie to choke in a fog of familiar, punchless jokes.
Even the title wasn’t thought all the way through, since the picture is about stealing money, not a university. Erstwhile skateboarder Jason Lee (Mallrats) is John Plummer, a hard-working clerk at a medical supply store run by his girlfriend’s father (Dennis Farina). Though John’s parents are dead, he takes solace in his trailer-trash sister (Megan Mullally) and his perfect niece Noreen (Tammy Blanchard), who breathlessly announces she got into Harvard—and she needs John to come through on a long-forgotten promise to pay for her college education.
John’s girlfriend Elaine (Leslie Mann) spends all of their money on a house, so he’s desperate for the $29,879 he needs to make Noreen’s dreams come true. Enter Duff (Green), John’s wacky childhood buddy who’s got plenty of ideas on the subject. He suggests burgling a house, robbing a convenience store and working with an old gangster friend. And we’re off on a series of bumbling misadventures that seldom come anywhere near that cutting edge McCulloch is searching for.
The script, by veteran hack writer Peter Tolan (Analyze This, America’s Sweethearts), feels as though it was tossed off on a slow afternoon by somebody who hated audiences. It’s never any fun to watch a movie in which all the characters are dumb (They don’t have student loans at Harvard? Noreen can’t go to Michigan State instead?), and John and Duff are dumber than most anybody. The slow, one-note heist sequences waste comedic possibilities at every turn, and the supporting cast is squandered—particularly Mullally and John McGinley as a detective who sounds an awful lot like his Dr. Cox character from Scrubs.
The best laughs are in the subtle background touches, like the Day-Glo pictures of tractor trailers studded with tiny lights hanging on the wood-paneled wall of Duff’s bedroom, or the way Duff’s drug-addled mother stands in the background, holding her son’s folded clothes while the action goes on in front of her. McCulloch even gets a late cameo as a jailhouse attorney who’s got a screen-printed coffee mug of himself and his kid in lieu of a briefcase.
There’s a good bit of funny small stuff, but you can barely see it for the big blaring dumbness of everything else. McCulloch is lucky Hollywood doesn’t have a three-strikes policy.