Old School

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

OLD SCHOOL

5/10

USA 2003 (made 2002) : Todd PHILLIPS : 90 mins

Old School is an uneven, warm-hearted comedy in which a trio of thirtysomething, white, middle-class American males escape the pressures of adulthood by returning to college: but they aren’t in search of further education – they just want to party, frat-boy style. Director Phillips (who co-wrote the script with Scot Armstrong) is in a similar situation – he can’t seem to get away from the campus either, his previous three features being university-kids-hit-the-highway romp Road Trip (2000), plus documentaries Frat House (1998) – a self-explanatory title – and Bittersweet Motel (2000), about college radio (and college stoner) favourites Phish.

The new picture’s heroes are variants on the character played by Tom Green in Road Trip, who loved campus life so much he hung around as a tour guide. Here Mitch (Luke Wilson), Frank (Will Ferrell) and Beanie (Vince Vaughn) exploit loopholes in the rules of (fictional) Harrison College to set up a raucous fraternity house where bacchanalian excess is the order of the day. The organisational skills of Beanie – who runs his own store selling hi-fi speakers – ensure the house’s parties are a massive success, right from the opening bash featuring a live appearance from an extremely famous rap star (as himself, in one of the film’s two effective surprise celebrity cameos). When the boys’ antics soon incur the displeasure of college dean Pritchard (Jeremy Piven) – who hasn’t forgiven them for picking on him way back when they were all proper students – the house is soon closed down. but Mitch, Frank, Beanie and their fellow frat-members won’t surrender without a fight.

With his documentary background, Phillips has often been credited with more of a sociological agenda than most directors working within the gross-out genre. And the more infantile (and infantilising) aspects of current American culture are certainly ripe for investigation: in a small but telling detail, we see that even Mitch’s hard-assed, fiftyish boss keeps a bowl of Skittles on his office desk. “Why do men behave like boys?” asks the poster tagline – “Because they can.” But rather than criticise Mitch and company for fleeing the responsibilities of adult life, Phillips presents getting in touch with your inner fratboy as a positive choice whose results are almost entirely benign: it’s a case of taking one step back in order to take two forward. Their beer-fuelled exploits are excused as harmless, with even the bearish Frank, the most juvenile and party-hearty of the three, is more of an over-enthusiastic buffoon than a numbskulled, overgrown jock. There’s a happy ending for just about everybody – with the obvious exception of Pritchard, whose fate is cartoonishly excessive.

Phillips’ indulgent approach is a clear departure from other recent films whose central characters were reluctant to leave the womb-like comforts of campus: Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and the more raucous Van Wilder. Both Rushmore‘s Max Fischer and Van Wilder’s title character were essentially oddballs, held back by their insecurities – Mitch and company find themselves stuck in dull routines (“wife, job, kids. every day is the same”), only to stumble across an unexpected and tempting escape-route. But while Phillips explicitly nods to Rushmore by casting Sara Tanaka (who played goody-two-shoes Margaret Yang in Anderson’s movie) as a goody-two-shoes named Megan Huang, the blandly-directed Old School clearly has no real pretentions to that kind of innovative, textured movie-making.

The aim is much lower – although maybe not quite far enough, as the film never manages to comes up with the moments of daft hilarity that Van Wilder, for all its faults, achieved from time to time. There’s a neat gag featuring a potty-mouthed wedding singer (the Philip Seymour Hoffman-ish Dan Finnerty) very early on, but once the proper story kicks in the most effective scenes are the most straightforwardly farcical: as when Frank spies on his wife as she and her gal-pals are taking blow-job lessons. Such energetic set-pieces are, however, disappointingly few and far between – Phillips’ concentrates too much on easy-going nice-guy Mitch, and while Wilson is ideal for this kind of role, the character just isn’t as funny as either of his best mates. Ferrell – who so often tries way too hard (Zoolander) – is surprisingly good value as the volatile Frank, whose mask of doughy ‘settled-down’ dullness often rapidly slips to reveal the beer-guzzling party-monster lurking beneath. Vaughn, meanwhile, offers an amusing (if alarmingly pudgy) version of what his breezily amoral Swingers character Trent might turned into if/when he’d ever managed to “grow up.”

1st May, 2003
(seen 29th April : Odeon Gate, Newcastle)

by Neil Young