HairBrained is a dumb movie about a smart character named Eli Pettifog, a 13-year-old prodigy who does not have a discernible area of expertise for his talents, only an encyclopedic mind. In Billy Kent’s prodigy-heads-to-college comedy, we rarely see him reading, studying or behaving like a regular person with an invaluable intelligence. He feels more like a quirky tool ripped off from precocious Max Fischer and other hyperintelligent characters than a fully realized creation. Eli’s wacky, Einsteinian hairdo is really his only unique quality.
Alex Wolff, already a multi-talented musician, plays Eli with a sarcastic tone and rarely offers more than a sullen look. In HairBrained, the young prodigy begins classes at Whitman, which he tells the audience is “the 37th best liberal arts college on the East coast.” He is 13 years old on his first day, while dorm neighbour Leo Searly (Brendan Fraser, who looks only mildly interested in the material) is also starting post-secondary school at an odd age: 41.
Eli explains to Leo that even though he is attending college at such a young age, that is not much of an accomplishment. Harvard rejected him and he is having a hard time getting over it, adorning his dorm with that university’s paraphernalia. However, he gets a chance to strike back at the elite university that denied him by captaining Whitman’s collegiate quiz-bowl trivia team, the Warring Hares.
As he leads the Warring Hares to a final showdown against snobby Ivy Leaguers, Eli encounters a tired bully cliché named Laird (Michael Oberholtzer), a tired bleached blonde “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” cliché named Shauna (Julia Garner) and Leo, a true man-child. Leo spent his early adulthood selling beer to college kids to pay off gambling debts, but he’s now chugging his way through school in the hopes of something that the film never reveals. Although Leo and Eli have a couple of bonding sessions, their friendship is exceptionally under-developed, neither proving to be much help to the other.
HairBrained is about as basic a coming-of-age indie as you can find. Miraculously, it took three people – director Billy Kent and Sarah Bird get story credits, while Adam Wierzbianski is the sole screenwriter – to figure out how to entrap the preciousness of Wes Anderson, the misery of Hal Ashby and the absurdity of Jared Hess into a story that doesn’t have any refreshing turns or characters of its own. Wierzbianski’s script also relies on a clumsy deus ex machina at the end to solve one of the story’s main conflicts, after Eli receives a suspension from the Collegiate Mastermind organizers.
Wolff has some difficulty injecting anything wounded or soulful into his prodigal protagonist that would make one eager to root for him. He teeters between being a snarky know-it-all who quibbles about everything and a precarious head-case, without ever finding a sympathetic middle ground. The young actor lacks the sensitivity to make us adore or grow fond of the character.
Kent’s film also wastes a talented supporting cast. A minor subplot involving Leo’s daughter hoping for admission into Whitman gives Fraser a small arc and a sense of perspective. Unfortunately, that subplot is resolved much too easily, and the actor gets little chance to do more with his character than what is on the page. Fred Melamed pops up in a small part unworthy of his talent as Bennie, Leo’s old bookie friend, and Parker Posey also appears in a brief part as Eli’s frazzled junkie mom – wasted in more than one way – who drives him to the Whitman gates on his first day and is not seen again until the end credits.
HairBrained looks cheap too – it is hard to believe that the college grounds are empty because of under-admission or a budget that could only afford a handful of extras. Whitman is a school of lost causes and it also looks like a ghost town. So much so that you expect tumbleweeds to start bouncing through the courtyard at any moment.
Ultimately, it’s the film’s script that brings it down. It’s no more than a clumsy collection of indie coming-of-age clichés that never fulfills on its promise to be an enjoyable buddy movie. The screenplay forces these foils together too easily but then forgets to have either character help each other in a meaningful way.
HairBrained even has a sequence of the Warring Hares strutting through the courtyard in snazzy new jackets to a twee indie soundtrack, followed by an icky moment of the three males (and one female) on the team urinating against a building. It is hard to determine whether or not this scene is parodying the conventions of a teen comedy or just aping their clichés. Either way, HairBrained may be the most trivial film ever made that spends much of its running time focused on useless trivia.
HairBrained is a rather dumb comedy about a sharply intelligent mind, failing due to flat characters, cliched plotting and minimal laughs.