Old School (2003)


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.