The title, "HairBrained," refers to 14-year-old Eli Pettifog's (Alex Wolff) overwhelming, out-of-control afro poofor, what one classmate describes as pubic hair on his headwhich he claims protects him from the stupidity around him. Watching the film, one wishes to be shielded from a similar idiocy emanating from nearly every scene of this turkey of a coming-of-age comedy. Director Billy Kent and screenwriter Adam Wierzbianski, previous collaborators on 2006's "The Oh in Ohio
," must have meant well in their conception of "HairBrained," but they have made detrimental creative decisions every step of the way. Are the characters and their relationships supposed to be taken seriously? Why are aspects of the script so far out there that they play like absurdist fantasy? Whatever the case may be, it is not funny, or charming, or dramatically compelling. Believing or caring about any of it is a stretch most viewers will not be willing to take.
MENSA member Eli Pettifog enters Whittman College barely into his teenage years, having skipped five grades to graduate high school early. Befriended by 40-year-old fellow freshman Leo Searly (Brendan Fraser), drawn to 15-year-old gal around town Shauna (Julia Garner), and hit on by third-year college sexpot Eve (Elisabeth Hower), Eli's university experience has already proven eventful when he is scorned and humiliated by students from first-choice school Harvard. Blessed with an encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything, he becomes the star team member of the Whittman Warring Hares, traveling around the country participating in the Collegiate Mastermind quiz-show competition. As Eli gradually grows in confidence, his new surroundings and the friends he makes are catalysts in a pivotal year of growing up.
"HairBrained" lives up to its title in level of intelligence and wildness of hair. The first mistake is the very gimmick described in its name, a coiffure upon Eli's head so unkempt and ridiculous it turns him into a caricature. It doesn't help that he has no personality and isn't particularly sympathetica problem more on director Billy Kent's shoulders than lead actor Alex Wolff's (2011's "The Sitter
"), who does what is instructed of him. The core throughway of the plot revolving around the quiz show cannot be taken seriously, either, with the contestants asked such surreal questions as, "Name all the states Bruce Springsteen was not born in," and "What was the only major league player to throw a non-hitter on LSD?" If the film was a spoof, it still wouldn't be funny, but at least it would fit with the tone. Instead, this malarkey vies for attention with a gentle romance between Eli and Shauna and a bittersweet subplot involving Leo's reconnection with his estranged teenage daughter, Sophie (Lizzy DeClement). This latter storyline is undernourished, but includes what is easily the film's most affecting scene, well-played by a likable Brendan Fraser (2010's "Extraordinary Measures
") and Lizzy DeClement (2013's "Oldboy
"HairBrained" is stuck in one of those strained, superficial movie worlds that resemble Earth, but bear few commonalities with real life and human behavior. The experience of watching it is frustrating, then obnoxious in its too-cute adorkableness. It is difficult to connect with characters who are indistinct and one note, and more so when they also strike as disingenuous writer constructs. The grave misuse of Parker Posey (2008's "The Eye
") as Eli's aloof, unreliable mother, Sheila, should be considered a crime by itself. "HairBrained" is a conceptually confused and ultimately disposable teen slice-of-no-life-I-know.