Gleefully Streaking Down Imbecile Road

Main Cast: Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn

Director: Todd Phillips

Sometimes I need stupid. I mean really need it. My brain is tired; I just want to be mindlessly entertained for a while. The major stumbling block in achieving this nirvana is that most movies that qualify as stupid are not at all entertaining. The trick is to find one that both lets your IQ linger in the mid 80’s throughout, yet still serves its primary function as a recreational tool. In other, smaller, words, it needs to be funny. I can’t even remember the last time that happened with the kind of success achieved by the 2002 release Old School.

oldschoolOld School opens with one of our heroes (a term I use in the loosest possible way) Mitch (Luke Wilson) arriving home early to find his live in girlfriend Heidi (Juliette Lewis) indulging in, shall we say, some extracurricular activities involving several other people and blindfolds. While Mitch’s friends think this may be a good and interesting development, Mitch is a more traditional guy, and moves out of his house and into a rental property on the campus of the nearby University.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Frank (Will Farrell) and Beanie (Vince Vaughn). Frank is getting married to Marissa (Perrey Reeves) and while at the altar waiting for the bride, Beanie harangues Frank to get out now, pointing to his own life with wife and kids as a good reason to stay single. The wedding proceeds, despite Beanie’s objections and Mitch’s drunken funk.

Soon enough, Beanie (always the schemer) sees the possibilities of Mitch’s new abode. A party house, like when they were in college. A place to go to get away from their real lives. And help Mitch get back on his feet of course. The stumbling block (of course there’s a stumbling block) comes in the form of Dean Pritchard (the wonderful Jeremy Piven) who knows our boys from their college days, holds them in supreme contempt (while really just being jealous) and re-zones the house for University use only. From this is born the idiotic/brilliant idea of turning the house into a fraternity. As Mitch is a lawyer, he finds loopholes to make this feasible despite none of the three being students. From this point on, the movie is really no more than a series of gags involving pledges, women, campus politics, beer and relationships. There is a subplot involving Mitch and his attempt to establish a relationship with the nubile Nicole (Ellen Pompeo), as well as one involving Frank’s less than ideal marriage, but these are really no more than minor interludes in the ongoing stupidity.

So, really, how could a high-minded movie consumer such as myself be sucked in by such inane drivel? Easy. It’s just damn funny. I laughed out loud more times than I can count, a rare thing indeed in the era of “every comedy must have a message that makes you want to barf”. There is virtually no message here. They don’t even try. And therein lies the beauty. What we have here is a series of short gags with hilarious payoffs and a few running gags that amazingly don’t get used to the point of becoming groan-worthy. Each of the three principal characters is a walking, talking caricature. We know people like them, but these guys are head and shoulders more stupid, obnoxious and immature than any actual person (I hope). Frank simply can’t wrap his mind around the idea of being married. One minute he’s looking forward to that trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond, the next he’s doing beer bongs in the frat kitchen with college students. Frank’s defining scene comes early on and involves one very naked 30 something man running through a college campus. Frank never truly moved past those college days, and reverting is really just a matter of a little temptation and, of course, that beer bong.

Beanie is married with kids. He’s an extraordinarily successful businessman. He’s also a scheming hot head. But a lovable scheming hot head. It’s Beanie who really pushes the idea of the fraternity, as well as the idea of having a place to escape from life in the form of Mitch’s house. Beanie’s defining scene is any one in which he is touting the spectacular benefits of partying until dawn while carrying a baby in a Snugglie.

And then we have Mitch. Mitch is more or less our straight man. Not as manic as either Frank or Beanie, he is somewhat caught in their energy and, being generally fairly mild mannered, goes with the flow. He isn’t the instigator of any of the shenanigans, but willingly participates. Mitch’s defining scene is when he begins ordering those in his office to perform fraternity related tasks and yells at his boss to get off his back, all with good results.

Where most straight up comedy fails is that the central gag gets old and is over used until it’s no longer funny. Old School avoids this trap by including peripheral situations and characters to ease that central premise into the background just enough to keep it fresh. The humor is not at all cerebral. It isn’t “chuckle appreciatively”, it’s “laugh until soda comes out your nose”. But be careful, because that smarts. Among the more successful short, almost skit-like gags are a BJ instructional session taught by Andy Dick (sporting a most delightful hairdo), an especially aged pledge named Blue (Patrick Cranshaw), a debate scene featuring a short cameo appearance by James Carville, a stirring rendition of Dust in the Wind and a very funny running gag with Frank constantly trying to re-gift a bread machine.

All three lead performances are strong and funny. Luke Wilson as Mitch is pathetic, sad, and yet projects the most sanity in the group. Wilson does a great job of being the straight, but not too straight, man. His droopy, puppy eyes at the beginning turning into something akin to a sincere effort to do the right thing by the end are played off nicely against the other characters. Will Farrell as Frank is the most flagrant boob in the bunch. Farrell plays almost entirely for laughs and delivers a remarkably high percentage of the time. His character teeters on the edge of being over used, but manages to stay pretty funny throughout. Vince Vaughn as Beanie is quite a surprise. I don’t usually think of Vaughn as a comic actor, but he does a great job here, perhaps the best of the three. He gives the blustering Beanie just the right touch of sweetness to make you love him rather than want to hurl something at the screen every time he appears. Considering the nature of the character, this is no mean feat.

Director and co-writer (with Scot Armstrong) Todd Phillips turns out a surprisingly funny, albeit entirely moronic, comedy in Old School. This is not a movie to watch if you’re in the mood for character development, complex stories, or sophistication of any kind whatsoever. You probably also want to stay away if vulgar, sophomoric humor offends you on some basic level. It’s a movie to watch when you need stupid. And, sometimes, don’t all of us need just a little bit of stupid? I thought so. When that’s your mood, Old School should fit like a glove.

The DVD version of Old School contains a most satisfying number of extra goodies. And for once I actually watched some of them (didn’t figure it would diminish my movie watching experience much in this case). There are some deleted scenes, all of which are far better off on the cutting room floor. Each one is too serious and bears a slight hint of maturity that would be jarringly discordant with the rest of the film. There is also a very funny, if too long, mock documentary/spoof of an Inside the Actor’s Studio piece. Rounding out the extras are some outtakes/bloopers, audio commentary, a photo gallery, production notes and a section on the cast and filmmakers, as well as the usual trailer and previews.