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National Lampoon Presents: Dorm Daze

Director: David Hillenbrand, Scott Hillenbrand
Cast: Tatyana Ali, Danielle Fishel, Chris Owen

(120 Degrees Films; US DVD: 10 Aug 2004)

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One of the more inexplicable critical consensuses in recent movie history was the praise bestowed on American Pie. A thoroughly mediocre rehash of ‘80s teen sex comedies, it was hailed for having “heart,” though it’s difficult to tell whether this emerged in the semen-drinking, the pastry-fucking, or the sock saving the world from the sight of Jason Biggs’ genitalia. The acclaim actually made more sense in the wake of Pie‘s many bastard children.


Though the thirst for horny teens now seems subsumed by tv shows about midgets getting married, the formerly proud folks at National Lampoon have put their imprint on Scott and David Hillenbrand’s Dorm Daze, a movie that came dribbling out of the teen sex chute about four years too late. But Dorm Daze does have a trick or two up its sleeve. Sure, it starts out predictably, populating its titular dorm with as many collegiate stereotypes as can be gleaned from other college movies—the wacky nerd, the ingénue, the gossipy sluts, the clean-cut overachiever, the virgin with the heart of gold—but soon enough, the film chucks character development and coherence out the window and settles into hijinks based on so many implausible misunderstandings that it plays like the last two minutes of all the worst episodes of Frasier stitched together. It may be exhausting, unfunny, irritating, and any number of other things, but you can say this for Dorm Daze: it’s not what you’d expect.


It’s so unexpected, in fact, that it’s baffling. Other than a cameo by a “beat-off rag,” the movie has none of the raunchiness you’d expect from a movie with the working title, “A College Sex Comedy.” Instead, it offers mix-ups aplenty, like two women named Dominique converging on the dorm at nearly the same time, only one is a foreign exchange student and one is a prostitute. Could their identities get confused? And what about two similar purses? Two characters who, independently of each other, pretend to be French? And two identical cell phones? Four notes, all delivered to (you guessed it!) the wrong parties? How about a gay guy and some double entendres with a sausage? Yes, Dorm Daze has those, too.


Since Dorm Daze is so confusing, it makes an excellent case for the clarifying powers of DVD bonus features. Yet the extra scenes, the very items that presumably warrant an “unrated” DVD, offer nothing but substandard gags. A behind-the-scenes feature on the topless fantasy sequence is vaguely naughty, and the mysterious “National Lampoon’s Master Debaters” is a semi-comic debate about superhero powers that has nothing whatsoever to do with Dorm Daze. These extras nix the theory that the film was actually a sex romp neutered by studio execs.


The question remains: what in the world was Dorm Daze supposed to be? The badly needed explanation finally comes on the filmmakers’ audio commentary. They conceived the movie as “a Shakespearean farce with 20-year-olds,” and there’s no hint that they’re joking when they say it. Actually, the commentary track is more engaging than the movie itself, showing that David and Scott Hillenbrand put plenty of time and thought into their project. Articulate, generous towards their cast, and immersed in their craft, they are also outrageously pretentious. Their repeated references to “film new-ar” and homages to this or that classic shows that they’ve watched good movies, but their attempt to make one of their own shows the limitations of influence when divorced from talent. That the Hillenbrands are not as crass and abrasive as their movie makes it something of a relief to watch Dorm Daze with the commentary on, but neither this nor anything else contained on the DVD bodes well for their future.


And what of National Lampoon? Some still remember that Animal House came from the group, and no one could forget it with National Lampoon’s Vacation. But Dorm Daze is more than lousy enough to register as a major degradation, even in these post-Van Wilder daze. Though Dorm Daze‘s protagonist looks halfway like Jim Belushi (the other half looking like Harry Potter), it tarnishes a once-venerable institution foolish enough to lend its name.

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