In whole, January is a miserable month for movies each year, save for a single truly great release. 1999 had Neil Jordan's haunting, underrated "In Dreams
." 2000 had the lesser, but still well-done "Eye of the Beholder
." 2001 had Sean Penn's chilling, thought-provoking "The Pledge
." And 2002 has "Orange County," a marvelous--and marvelously funny--entertainment that goes down as easily as a cold glass of water on a balmy summer afternoon.
Energetically directed by Jake Kasdan (1998's "Zero Effect"), the 26-year-old son of veteran filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan (1983's "The Big Chill"), "Orange County" has advertised itself as a typical "teen" comedy when it is anything but. With universal themes far more penetrating that who will take who to the prom, or who will win the bet on turning the ugly duckling into Miss Popularity, the film remains a down-to-earth experience even amid some of the outlandish humor.
Attributing more in common with 1999's biting "Election
" than 1999's cliched "She's All That," "Orange County" also stands as a rare achievement--a mainstream motion picture about high schoolers that transcends all of the usual age barriers of the genre. Literally anyone over the age of around 12 will be able to thoroughly enjoy it without feeling excluded from the target audience.
The hero of the story is Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks), an Orange County, Ca., native who, as a high school senior, is preparing to go away to college in the fall. Following the discovery of a life-changing novel entitled "Strait Jacket" half-buried in the sand on a beach, Shaun is inspired to become a writer, and wants nothing more than to be accepted to Stanford University, where the aforementioned book's author, Marcus Skinner (Kevin Kline), teaches as an English professor. Despite having exemplary grades and test scores, Shaun is distressed when he is denied admittance into the school, only to find that the daffy high school guidance counselor (Lily Tomlin) accidentally sent them the wrong transcript. With his loyal, animal-loving girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk) and deliriously drugged-out older brother Lance (Jack Black) in tow, Shaun sets off for the university, determined to straighten the whole mess out.
Reading the premise, it would be easy to dismiss "Orange County" as another "Road Trip
," but it is in the pitch-perfect treatment of the material that the film really hits a home run. In fact, it becomes increasingly apparent that the plot is only an excuse to tell a heartfelt, joyful tale about acceptance, family, and the true important things in one's life. This is the key to the picture's remarkable success: so-called "teen" movies usually create characters as an excuse to further the story along, whereas "Orange County" uses the story as an excuse to present a wide range of exact, loving, and original characters.
Standing front-and-center as Shaun Brumder is Colin Hanks (2001's "Get Over It
"), son of Tom Hanks, in his first starring vehicle. Hanks has not had the right material in the past to prove that he had what it took to be a leading man, but he more than fills his end of the bargain with a likably offbeat and sweet performance that consistently carries the movie from beginning to end.
The best thing about Shaun is his sheer goodness. He could stand as a positive role model for many teenagers, as the thing he is most concerned about in his life is not the school dance, but getting the best education possible. The relationship Shaun shares with his highly dysfunctional family, including brother Lance, alcoholic mother Cindy (Catherine O'Hara), and old, wheelchair-bound stepfather Bob (George Murdock), is accurately and affectionately portrayed, not to mention alternately hilarious and poignant.
Opposite Hanks is the sunny Schuyler Fisk (2000's "Snow Day
"), as Shaun's main squeeze Ashley, who has the same sort of charm and sparkle as real-life mother Sissy Spacek. Ashley is strongly written to be more than just the main character's love interest, as she stands by the guy she cares about, because she cares about him, even as she realizes him getting into Stanford will mean them having to break up.
As for Jack Black (2001's "Shallow Hal
"), as Shaun's eternally high brother Lance, he turns in the type of incendiary comic turn that stars are made of. Black is a fearless actor who will do anything and everything for a laugh, and he earns every one of them twofold.
The rest of the cast is filled from one end to the other with well-known actors in sharply realized supporting roles and cameos. It is a delight to simply see all of these familiar faces, and even more enjoyable knowing that they are mostly more than just throwaway parts. Catherine O'Hara (1998's "Home Fries
") is a standout as Shaun's seriously unhinged mother, a generally good woman who, nonetheless, cannot bear to see her son go away to college and leave her. Kevin Kline (2001's "Life as a House
"), as Shaun's novelist idol Marcus Skinner, is excellent for his five minutes of screen time. A climactic scene in which, much to his disbelief, Shaun comes face to face with Marcus, is honestly handled and surprisingly effective. Harold Ramis (1984's "Ghostbusters") is hilarious as Stanford's Dean of Admissions who accidentally accidentally mistakens Lance's tablets of ecstasy for advil. Lily Tomlin (2000's "The Kid
"), Chevy Chase (2000's "Snow Day
"), Monica Keena (2000's "Crime and Punishment in Suburbia"), Garry Marshall (1999's "Never Been Kissed
"), and Ben Stiller (2001's "The Royal Tenenbaums
") also have memorable appearances.
The screenplay, by Mike White (2000's "Chuck & Buck"), refuses to dissolve into formula with every turn it takes, making "Orange County" not only an unusually intelligent and awfully funny movie, but also a genuinely fresh one with snappy dialogue and lovable characters. Light-hearted as it is, there are serious issues at work throughout, and its treatment of a troubled family that can't help but love one another is far more incisive here than it was in 2001's "The Royal Tenenbaums
Finally, the way in which Shaun achieves at the end what he set out to do, and then makes a decision that goes against his original hopes and dreams, signals major growth on his part, and is carried out with a subtle hand. At 82 minutes, "Orange County" flies right by with the blink of an eye--not because it is necessarily too short (even though it is on the brisk side), but because you are having so much fun that you don't want it to end.
©2002 by Dustin Putman