I almost felt sorry for HairBrained. Here's a movie that wants very much to be like other movies. It wants to be like Rushmore, and Napoleon Dynamite. It also wants to be Revenge of the Nerds, and Meatballs. Its childlike folk-pop soundtrack sounded like the music of Juno. The movie, which is harmless and mildly entertaining, is like a person without a personality who thinks he can get by in the world if only he can dress like his favorite movie star. HairBrained is so desperate to belong that it almost reminded me of, well, its own lead character, Eli Pettifog, a 13-year-old genius nerd who wishes desperately to go to Harvard. It's never made clear why Eli prefers Harvard to, say, Yale, or Princeton, but like most everything else in this movie, his love of Harvard is just plopped in our laps and we have to accept it.
We also have to accept that when Eli is accepted to a much smaller college, he's befriended by Leo Searly, a 41-year-old goof who has gone back to college for no particular reason, either. We eventually learn that Leo is divorced, estranged from his daughter, and was once a degenerate gambler who blew a lot of money. He occupies the dorm room across the hall from Eli and coaches him through such things as dealing with a hangover, and how to be confidant around girls. Sure, maybe there's a point here about the oldest and the youngest students at the school relying on each other, but it happens out of the blue and never really feels realistic.
Long story short, Eli is humiliated by some snotty Harvard kids, and deals with his heartbreak by vowing to get even. He does so by joining his school's "mastermind competition," and leading them to the finals where he'll face off with the Harvard baddies in the finals and blow them away with his sheer intellect. In between, Eli kisses some girls, fends off bullies, and learns some valuable lessons about himself, as kids in these sort of movies usually do. I kept wondering how he knew Harvard was going to be there at the finals, and not, perhaps, lose to Cornell along the way. Then again, Eli's a genius, not me, so maybe he knew something.
The movie has a lot wrong with it, namely unfunny dialog, scenes that start with potential but end too quickly, and characters that seem cute or interesting only to remain undeveloped. I particularly liked the girl at the school's mail room. She was funny and bright, but we only saw her fleetingly. Where did she go? As Eli, Alex Wolf has a quiet charisma and bushed out hair like late-60s Bob Dylan. Wolf does what he can with a derivative script and gamely rises above it. He's very funny when he's not playing the genius part of Eli, and instead plays Eli as a shy, nervous kid (he's funny in a scene where he refuses to look at an older girl's breasts). Brendan Fraser plays Leo without working up a sweat. I guess the writers needed someone to drive the van so the kids can get from one Mastermind show to the next. The rest of the cast members are either overly cheerful or overly dumb, cartoon versions of characters we know too well from other college movies.
That the film is so blandly derivative of other movies is a shame because director Billy Kent does have a great visual sense. He uses Wolf's mop of crazy hair to great effect, often in silhouette, and the splashes of color throughout the film are eye-catching. At times the movie has an innocent beauty, something like a supermarket gumball machine, or a bag of shiny marbles. I only wish the jokes had been funnier, and the situations less hackneyed.