Film Review: Hard Sell

This study of an impoverished student and a stripper teaming up to bilk his rich classmates feels like a 'Risky Business' rip-off, which doesn't make it any the less lousy.
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Hardy Buchanan (Skyler Gisondo) feels a misfit at his posh Long Island private school. He's a poor kid with an unstable, agoraphobic mother (Kristin Chenoweth) who's more attached to her dog, Walter, than anything else. Walter's in bad shape and requires an outrageously expensive operation, which Hardy manages to raise funds for with the help of Bo (Katrina Bowden), a beautiful blonde girl who wanders into his life, claiming to be—wonder of wonders—a stripper. She offers therapy—both sexual and mental—to now scholastic pimp Hardy's monied, horny classmates. Things seem to be finally going right for the lad, but then Bo's secret past surfaces, Mom gets even more bat-shit, and Walter goes to that big dog pound in the sky.

Oy! And double oy!! When was the last time any filmmaker used the sickly dog premise to fuel the plot? Actually, maybe no one was ever really that shameless, but the device feels as hoary as that one-or-more-parents-being-dead formula which 20th Century Fox used to employ to ensure guaranteed extra sympathy for their darling, dancing little cash cow, Shirley Temple. Writer-director Sean Nalaboff merely continues on this abysmally calculated and clueless path in Hard Sell, with exposition so tired and cloyingly sentimental that the viewer becomes too enervated to even groan in reaction. The device of having Bo show her breasts for money to panting school boys and then presenting this as some kind of empowerment because she also counsels their love lives (and eventually, seemingly, the entire student body) is beyond offensive. It all comes to a head with the school board calling Hardy on the carpet when they learn of his shenanigans. He is primed to give as good as he gets, and rails at the eternal non-comprehension of kids by their elders who, in his words, "abrogate" their responsibilities. He becomes even more sage-like, Yoda-esque, if you will, when he tells a suffering, weepy Bo, "You can't run away from family."

Gisondo's Hardy harks back to that kid in Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns and every other gabbily precocious showbiz adolescent who ever behaved and talked like a 70-year-old Catskills comedian. (It's a character gimmick that refuses to die.) He's more aggressively pugnacious than truly charming or funny, and it's difficult to work up much sympathy for him. A game Bowden tries to instill some recognizable human qualities into the cardboard outline of a character she's been handed and, sadly, doesn't get very far. Chenoweth is something of a living legend on the Broadway stage for the rambunctious musical gifts that have brought joy to generations of fans, but has never really connected on the big screen. It's unfortunately the same story here, given the shallow shoddiness of Nabaloff's take on mental illness. She attempts to flavor her scenes with a devil-may-care, decidedly anti-maternal and ubiquitously inappropriate humor, but it all comes off as very forced. Your mind wanders to thoughts of "Well, her hair is pretty unkempt, as befits a wacked-out, stay-at-home mom, but—gosh!—her makeup is perfect, red carpet-ready!"

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