Back when I worked at the video store, we used to receive catalogues from the DVD distributor every couple of weeks outlining upcoming releases. Since these are designed as a business tool rather than promotional one, they feature a lot of full-page ads for dubious releases with a bunch of selling points like ‘Statistics show that Cuba Gooding Jr. action movies track higher than Ray Liotta and Dolph Lundgren combined!’ or ‘It’s Juno meets The Hangover meets Lord of the Rings!’. The idea is that, while unsuspecting video-store owners don’t need to be convinced to order 60 copies of The Hangover, they might need a bit of a push to consider Hollow Man 2 so it’s compared to a half-dozen runaway hits from the last few years. The longer ahead of time the film appears in the book, the slimmer its chances of actually being something people want to see.
All of this brings us to Harold, a film whose entire existence I was made aware of through said catalogues. For what seemed like months, a full-page ad for Harold appeared in there, sending me and my coworkers in a frenzy of incredulity. I daresay that history was being made right then and there, unbeknownst to any of us, as Harold became the genesis for this very blog you are reading right now and the uncontrollable waves of pleasure pulsating through your genitals as you do so. Harold looked so fucking stupid and unnecessary that it became a running joke amongst us. We couldn’t wait for it to come out so we could marvel at 90 minutes of a be-fro’ed Cuba Gooding Jr. teaching life lessons to a pudgy pre-pubescent boy with male pattern baldness. What could possibly top that?
We finally received one copy of Harold. I took it home, trembling with anticipation as I slid it into my DVD player. Five minutes later, I was making a sandwich. Ten minutes later, I went to the pharmacy. I gave up on Harold.
Harold never gave up on me.
Harold Clemens (Spencer Breslin) is 13 going on 63. He’s your average teenager, save for the fact that he’s been balding since he was five. This pretty much affects everything else that makes him an average teenager: he’s cranky, doesn’t understand his ditzy sister (Stella Maeve), dresses like a high school physics teacher, screams at the ‘damn kids’ when he finds them on his lawn, has an undying love for Murder, She Wrote and generally affects the persona of an aging malcontent.
When his mom (Ally Sheedy) gets a job in a new town, Harold is forced to leave behind the comfortable life he’s always known and start from zero. Things are off to a rough start when the old lady next door takes a shine to him and the local doctor (Fred Willard, in a role he seems to have shot in the midst of a marathon of doctor roles in shitty movies judging by his lack of enthusiasm) mistakenly performs a prostate exam on him.
Written and directed by veteran comedy scribe T. Sean Shannon (his credits range from In Living Color to SNL, The Tonight Show and Nick Swardson’s Pretend Time), Harold has a much better grip on comedy than the usual obnoxious, tone-deaf DTV comedy. Unfortunately, Shannon’s time spent on sketch comedy bleeds through the entire movie. It’s a flimsy, one-joke premise that grows tiresome by the ten-minute mark. If you’re going to go with something as dumb and outrageous as building an entire movie around a kid’s balding pate, you might as well run with it. Instead, the film settles for the most boring snobs-vs-slobs high-school nerd comedy imaginable, complete with one-dimensional bully, dorky clique (led by Hairspray’s Nikki Blonsky), unattainable love interest (Elizabeth Gillies) and a wise, older father figure in the form of a jaded janitor played by Cuba Gooding Jr.
Why go through all this trouble to make the kid a balding, high-school version of Archie Bunker when the film could easily have been any other kind of nerdy, misfit kid? Well, the short answer is simple: a balding teenager is funny to T. Sean Shannon and (evidently) whoever bankrolled this fucking thing. Yet most of the jokes stem from Harold being a generic type of dork in generic teenage dork situations. Even the favours Shannon calls in from his SNL buddies and comedy pinch-hitters like Rachel Dratch, Dave Attell and Chris Parnell are generic bordering on the inane. Parnell, for example, plays a high-school gym teacher who wears short shorts and speaks in generic comedy coachisms like ‘Is this a garden? ‘Cause all I see is PANSIES!’ and ‘Eye of the tiger, guys. Eye of the tiger.’ The whole point of getting people like Parnell to be in your shitty movie is that you get to cut them loose and maybe spice it up a bit. This role could have been filled by any number of actors, comedic or not. Of course, there’s always the chance that this was Parnell stretching his wings in a serious roll, but I’ll be the first to say it: this ain’t anybody’s Punch Drunk Love.
In fact, the only person in the film who seems to give at least 2/3’s of a shit is Cuba Gooding Jr. as world-weary janitor Cromer. That’s all the more surprising considering that Gooding Jr. has been phoning it with relentless abandon for a good eight years at this point. He’s got a casual quality to his performance here that clashes rather badly with the film but creates pretty much all of the movie’s funny moments. I don’t think being funny in a piece of shit no one will ever see counts as a smart career move (and he produced this too – really, Cubes, who are you kidding?) but it’s ever-so-slightly heartwarming to see someone caring.
Shannon’s sketch-comedy approach means that the film shambles along as a series of vignettes that usually end with Harold being humiliated in one way or another (he has a hairy back! He’s sexually harassed by the old lady next door! He crashes a pink go-cart! He gets his pants pulled down! He gets in to a stripclub but doesn’t have any money ‘cause he’s 13, much to the dismay of fellow patron Colin Quinn! He asks for a go-kart but instead gets one of those old-man scooters!) until the halfway mark, which becomes a broad-side-of-a-barn-treatise on what it means to be cool. Harold’s old man looks are exploited by older kids looking to get beer; they allow Harold to tag along on their drives in exchange for beer, which makes Harold feel cool. Since you’ve seen other movies before, you know that this is wrong.
It eventually culminates into a series of generic scenarios ripped out of an Archie comic: Harold plans to win the big go-kart race, his sister has to face her loser boyfriend who’s trying to pressure her into having sex (which she does by comically roping said boyfriend into having sex with the creepy old lady next door), those damn bullies get knocked down a peg and everyone learns something about themselves in the same way that every movie not about a balding teenager goes about things. I don’t think I can overstate how disappointing it is that the movie manages to waste its premise with such reckless abandon. I signed up to watch a movie about an old man in a kid’s body, damn it! I wanted reverse Jack! Where’s my reverse Jack?!
Also dubious is the film’s intended audience. Although ostensibly aimed at kids Harold’s age or younger (but with a full head of hair), it lays it on thick with the rape (stuff getting shoved up Harold’s butt in general is a popular topic) and especially pedophilia jokes – all the while keeping a clean, family friendly atmosphere. Cromer is a boozing loner who hangs out in a local strip club and idolizes an ‘Internet entrepreneur’ yet he’s presented as a total do-gooder; imagine Bad Santa rewritten as a Nickelodeon kids show and you’ve got a good idea of how Harold plays out. Only small children with low standards would actually sit through an entire movie of a balding teenager, but I’m not sure the incessant jokes about Cromer being a pedophile really plays to them. In a way, it’s a throwback to family films from the 80’s that featured adult issues with reckless abandon – but those were usually funny and involved more of a setup and payoff than Cuba Gooding Jr. vehemently denying that he touched a thirteen-year-old in his swimsuit area. For a film that holds such a puritan view of pre-marital sex, it sure views anal trauma in a hilarious light.
The film’s credits are of the ‘look at the nutty stuff that DIDN’T make it in! Boy oh boy!’ variety and even those are tremendously unfunny. (The well-endowed bartender at the strip club doesn’t even get a shot of her face for the end credits – it’s funny ‘cause she’s got big tits, you see.) The old showbiz adage is that the more fun you have on a movie set, the shittier the end product tends to be. Considering the complete absence of laughter when Gooding Jr. or Sheedy go off-page on an ad-lib, the people who worked on Harold must think this is a goddamned masterpiece.
So why does it exist?
Comedy writers have to come up with massive, massive amounts of jokes and concepts – especially those working in the sketch format. Since I like to make up scenarios based on absolutely nothing, here’s how I think it went down: T. Sean Shannon came up with the idea for Harold while writing for one of the many shows for which he has contributed hilarious material. Everyone else on the show thought it wasn’t up to snuff… so he held on to it. It became a passion project for him, a discarded idea that he had poured all of his soul into yet couldn’t catch a break with. For years and years, he fine-tuned this passion-project, talking it up to anyone he could. Funny people all over Hollywood were in tears over the image of Fred Willard ramming his finger up the ass of a balding teenager. Daring comedy had no place in the stuffy milquetoast world of 21st century Los Angeles. ‘How does no one see your brilliance?’ they’d say. ‘I’d love to help you, son, but my hands are tied! They’d crucify me!’ said Lorne Michaels. Dejected, T. Sean Shannon began pitching to anyone who would listen, working tirelessly into the night. Finally, won over by his spunk and vigor, some knucklehead tossed a couple million dollars at him and Harold was born.
Or maybe some focus group decided that the ultimate comedy concept was a kid who acted like an old man and everyone who worked on this did it for the money. Fuck do I know.