Film

Old School (2003)

Elbert Ventura

Peddling the same jokes and ideas as countless other undistinguished 'Animal House' wannabes, 'Old School' is too dutiful for its own good.


Old School

Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Luke Wilson, Ellen Pompeo, Leah Rimini
MPAA rating: R
Studio: DreamWorks
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-02-21

Ben Affleck may hold the moniker officially, but a real "man without fear" comes to theaters this weekend. The source of the vast majority of Old School's laughs, Will Ferrell charges through the movie like a man possessed. In an early set piece, he downs a boatload of beer, strips in front of a crowd, and goes streaking down a sleepy suburban street. Fall-down funny, the heavily plugged bit is perhaps the, um, starkest display yet of Ferrell's fearless comedy.

A shame, then, that the movie it graces rarely shows the same unhinged abandon. Occasionally funny and agreeably slight, Old School may at times show a glint of postmodern awareness, but it mostly assumes the familiar contours of the bawdy campus comedy. Peddling the same jokes and ideas as countless other undistinguished Animal House wannabes, Old School is too dutiful for its own good.

Directed by Todd Phillips, Old School offers a canny mix of frat-boy devilry and midlife-crisis humor, comic material with a single theme: freedom -- from responsibility, from maturity, from femininity. Made for maximum pandering, the movie flatters the worldview of its white-male audience, but plays it safe enough to appeal to a wider audience.

The reliably contrived plot is set in motion when boring real estate lawyer Mitch (Luke Wilson) moves into a new pad near the local university, after splitting up with his girlfriend (Juliette Lewis). Mitch's friends, man's man Beanie (Vince Vaughn) and newlywed Frank (Will Ferrell), dig the new digs, seeing it as a respite from their wholesome suburban lives. Ever the go-getter, Beanie throws his friend a raucous housewarming party -- complete with a Snoop Dogg appearance -- and lovelorn Mitch becomes the new campus stud.

True to form, the Establishment soon breaks up the fun. The dean (Jeremy Piven in a thankless role) tells them that the house will be re-zoned and can only be used for university purposes. Given a week to vacate, the three hatch a harebrained plan to start a new fraternity to make their enterprise legit. The whole thing culminates in a ridiculous skills competition to test the brotherhood's worthiness, a lame device that admittedly occasions some of the movie's funnier gags.

Decidedly unambitious, Old School plucks all the low-hanging fruit from the venerable frat-house comedy genre. There's nothing wrong with dumb yuks per se, but it's frustrating when a movie willingly slums in the "good-for-what-it-is" category. Considering Phillips' background -- he directed, among others, Screwed, a documentary on pornographer Al Goldstein, and Frat House, a controversial, now-shelved expose on the hazing rituals of fraternities -- Old School is not as raunchy or transgressive as it could have been (Ferrell's nude antics notwithstanding).

The movie ends up relying heavily on its stars' talents. While Wilson barely registers as the hesitant party animal (locals call him "The Godfather"), Vaughn turns in his best comic performance since his breakthrough in Swingers. Exuding the same exaggerated masculinity that made "Double Down" Trent so iconic, Vaughn plays Beanie like the slightly more domesticated cousin of a Neil LaBute alpha male. (In keeping with the movie's pusillanimity, the blustering Beanie ultimately turns out to have a soft spot for commitment.)

The show is all Ferrell's, though. As "Frank the Tank," the lapsed frat boy, he's in the zone. Hands down one of the five best Saturday Night Live cast members ever, Ferrell has a Midas-like ability to elevate familiar comic tropes. A hackneyed joke like Frank refusing a beer because of his "big day tomorrow" shopping at Home Depot with the wife gets a laugh in his hands. His delivery at once earnest and knowing, Ferrell, like Bill Murray, has the ability to simultaneously give a performance and stand beside it. Bordering on the surreal, Ferrell's Old School turn runs like a highlight reel: here he is singing "Dust in the Wind" at a funeral; there he goes debating James Carville on the politics of biotechnology.

Poised for stardom, Ferrell should help make the movie a hit (on opening weekend, it took in $17.5 million at the box office, second only to Daredevil). No dummies, the filmmakers have programmed Old School for demographic success. Shirtless co-eds, raging keggers, appearances by Snoop and Craig Kilborn: Maxim readers should feel right at home. In casting middle-aged men as the catalysts for a Greek rebellion, the movie summons the memory of Fight Club, which at once championed and debunked men's mindless romanticization of the masculine ideal. The conflation of frat-boy irreverence and white-male resentment points to the direct link between Greek brotherhoods and the space monkeys of David Fincher's movie.

Needless to say, such politics are not the movie's overt domain. In fact, entertainments like Old School are predicated on the audience brushing off political implications. "It's just a movie," the dismissive retort goes, and this one does a good job of keeping you distracted. Whether it means becoming more critical or more offensive, Old School could actually use more bite either way to be memorable. Ultimately innocuous, the movie coasts along lazily, content at being good for what it is.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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