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BALCONY SEATS 

Admission of Guilty Pleasure

A successful movie producer once detailed to me his idea for a thriller about a "desperate" woman who tried to make contacts in the entertainment industry by crashing fancy Los Angeles parties. His heroine, he explained, was almost completely financially destitute, down to one good black cocktail dress, a strand of pearls, her laptop and a Mercedes convertible. He was not kidding. Thus, another window opened for me into the distorted Hollywood mind, and I understood why in American films even the poor wore stylish clothes and drove fine automobiles. Jake Kasdan's current Orange County is not that out of touch with reality, but it suffers from a disconnect in kind if not degree. The young college applicant with whom we are supposed to identify drives his own late-model SUV, and his parents are so loaded we can't ever work up a big-time case of worrying about him.

Orange County is the story of Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks), a suburban high school senior who has fallen in love with writing and yearns to go to Stanford to study with a writer he admires. Unfortunately, in the great tradition of teen-comedy maestro John Hughes, Shaun is not surrounded by responsible adults. His English teacher (Mike White) is an idiot who lauds Shakespeare as the author of stuff turned into some pretty important movies. His guidance counselor (Lily Tomlin) is an incompetent slacker who can't even keep the names of her students straight. His divorced and remarried-for-money mother (Catherine O'Hara) is self-pitying and way too fond of white wine. His stepfather (George Murdock) is a vegetable. His divorced father (John Lithgow) is a driven businessman motivated solely by money. And his trophy wife stepmother (Jane Adams) is a tart with the IQ of gerbil. With the guidance Shaun gets from all these role models, it's not surprising that he fails to get into Stanford. It is surprising, however, that from the ashes of his miserable disappointment emerges the phoenix of so much mirth.

Orange County is better than I ever would have expected, all the while it's not as good as it should be. Kasdan made a much fresher picture in his debut, Zero Effect. And writer Mike White worked much closer to the edge in his creepy buddy feature Chuck and Buck. Here their material clicks often enough to make for an arguable success. But still the filmmakers resort to vomit and urine jokes and a tiresome array of pratfalls. Moreover, even the construction of Shaun's character proves regrettably sloppy. Shaun is supposed to be student-body president and a straight-A scholar all the while he's a surfer dude with doofus best pals who dropped in from their featured roles in Dude, Where's My Car? The mix might work if we were to see Shaun as beach-bum brother to Chris Klein's jock politician in Alexander Payne's Election, but Klein's jock isn't supposed to be truly talented and Shaun is.

Some of the scenes hold together, like the one in which Shaun is humiliated by his dysfunctional family when he arranges to meet an influential Stanford benefactor (Gary Marshall). But other passages clunk like a bell with a broken clapper. Why, for instance, would Shaun allow his deranged brother Lance (Jack Black) to break into the Stanford admissions office? And in the end, the picture stumbles badly, settling for saccharine sweetness just when we need a strong infusion of tang.

Still, I credit Orange County for addressing the pressure thousands of today's teens feel about getting into an elite college. The picture's benediction that the school you go to doesn't determine who you really are is a lesson all alone worth the price of admission. Furthermore, if you're in the market for humor, Orange County delivers often enough. The picture is smartly edited for comedic effect, and Kasdan sometimes extracts laughs purely with canny cuts. In this regard Tanya (Carly Pope), the brainy ice-bitch nymphomaniac, is salvaged from the stock character cloak room and turned into the vehicle for a couple of belly laughs.

Elsewhere, the comedy is more subtle. I liked the gentle way the film pokes fun at Shaun's good-hearted girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk), who worries endlessly about endangered species, which in her view seem to include mongrel dogs spied along the side of the road. And then, of course, there's Jack Black. Black may wear out his welcome sometime soon, but his looniness is still working for me. I laughed at John Belushi in Animal House, and I'll own up to laughing at his spiritual descendant here. In the film's best moment, Lance's excitement at his brother's possible admission to Stanford fuels a reexamination of his own life and results in a fervent decision to make something of himself. The riff reminded me of Steve Martin's pontifications as The Barber of York, and like that vintage Saturday Night Live sketch, left me howling.

click to enlarge Jack Black brings his usual looniness to Jake Kasden's Orange County.
  • Jack Black brings his usual looniness to Jake Kasden's Orange County.
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