Movie Review: Old School
FILM REVIEW: OLD SCHOOL
By Mark Caro
Chicago Tribune Movie Writer
Comedy is subjective, but can we agree that some laughs are easier than others? For instance, presenting three-dimensional characters who crack you up with wit or behavioral quirks is tougher than, say, having a fleshy fellow run naked through the streets.
The best humor requires craft. The lazy brand runs closer to pandering, in the manner of a thirtysomething guy eliciting cheers from college kids by proclaiming, "Let's get stoned!"
No one would lump Todd Phillips' "Old School" in with the hard workers. It's a comedy with a simple-to-summarize concept three 30-year-old guys start a fraternity next to a college campus and a stream of sex-and-booze gags. That the gags and jokes rarely relate to character or story seems beside the point. Ditto for the lack of plot development or coherence. Phillips and co-writer Scot Armstrong are content to give you familiar actors in vulgar frat-boy situations and leave it at that.
It's telling that one of the movie's bigger laughs involves a wedding band's profane cover version of "Total Eclipse of the Heart." The song is such a fat target that it's hard to miss, but didn't Adam Sandler exhaust the whole wedding band/'80s cheese combination five years ago with "The Wedding Singer"? And are '70s sap classics such as Styx's "Lady" and Kansas' "Dust in the Wind" really wanting for more ridicule?
Phillips ("Road Trip") isn't using the pop-culture references to any particular satirical end. They're just there to keep "Old School" rolling along, as if a high quantity of jokes could camouflage an overall lack of inspiration.
Perpetual straight man Luke Wilson plays Mitch, who arrives home early from a business trip to find his girlfriend living out what might as well be pornographic "Elimidate" outtakes. Soon he's moved into an off-campus house, which his stereo-salesman buddy Beanie (Vince Vaughn) convinces him to turn into party central.
Beanie's motivation apparently is to enable Mitch, the newly married Frank (Will Ferrell) and himself to relive their promiscuous college days. Yet Beanie, who constantly badmouths marriage, is the one committed married guy of the group and thus the least willing to partake in the coed frolicking that he's set in motion.
Another movie might have played this contradiction for laughs. "Old School" apparently just hopes you won't notice.
Vaughn plays Beanie with the same fast-talking tartness he brought to "Swingers" and "Made," which is to say he has a strong comic presence, but the act grows thin. Ferrell's sweet, somewhat dopey Frank is a newly domesticated man who thinks he's put his hard-partying "Frank the Tank" days behind him. Of course, he hasn't.
Ferrell is an effective TV-sketch performer whose big-screen efforts tend to smell like shtick. He's toned down a bit here until he's required to start dropping trou, at which point all bets are off. Wilson, as usual, is fine, sympathetic, not mind-blowing.
As you'd expect from a movie like this, the female roles are pretty thankless, with Juliette Lewis as Mitch's ditzy-nympho girlfriend; Leah Remini (of "The King of Queens") as Frank's wife, whose sole emotion seems to be exasperation; and Ellen Pompeo as Mitch's possible love conquest in a perfunctory subplot.
Jeremy Piven, meanwhile, puts a droll spin on what essentially is the Dean Wormer role which, for all you kids out there, is an "Animal House" reference. "Old School," executive-produced by "Animal House" producer Ivan Reitman, obviously is trying to tap into a similar misfits-vs.-authority vibe, but the older movie's anarchy has been replaced by bland calculation.
The movie also has roots in Phillips' 1998 documentary "Frat House," which HBO ultimately refused to air over accusations that the filmmakers staged much of the action. Then there are the random references to "The Graduate" and such recycled ideas as celebrity cameos, the heavy getting caught admitting his misdeeds on tape, and an oral-sex demonstration for women that last piece of ground covered previously by Madonna and Woody Allen.
"Old School" contains some laughs, including a bit involving Ferrell and a tranquilizer gun that somehow overcomes its obviousness. But the movie is never more than the sum of its scattershot jokes; it's sloppily put together, with scenes seemingly cut mid-dialogue. The movie ostensibly is about aging guys grappling with and avoiding adult responsibilities, but the idea goes nowhere.
Given his reliance on sophomoric pranks and winks at the past, perhaps Phillips shares his characters' maturation fears. But you can never go back again and when faced with such "Old School" humor, you won't want to.
Directed by Todd Phillips; written by Phillips, Scot Armstrong; photographed by Mark Irwin; edited by Michael Jablow; production designed by Clark Hunter; music by Theodore Shapiro; produced by Phillips, Daniel Goldberg, Joe Medjuck. A DreamWorks Pictures release; opens Friday, Feb. 21. Running time: 1:31. MPAA rating: R (some strong sexual content, nudity, language).
Mitch Luke Wilson
Frank Will Ferrell
Beanie Vince Vaughn
Pritchard Jeremy Piven
Nicole Ellen Pompeo
Heidi Juliette Lewis