These days, mainstream teen movies come in three varieties. There are the slasher flicks, worlds unto themselves. There are the comedies, that can’t seem to help but fall back on, and all over, sex and fart jokes. And there are the earnest coming-of-age stories, about first love, dealing with loss, achieving a goal. Really, with all the teen movies that come bubbling up out of the Hollywood cauldron every year, it must be taxing to come up with gross-out and/or earnest material that hasn’t been done a million times before.
What to do? What to do? Teen movies are still the cheapest way to get into mainstream moviemaking, if for no other reasons than your stars can be no-names and your scripts can be minimal. But what happens if you twist up these conventions, just a little? Voila: Orange County, directed by Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence) and written by Mike White (Chuck and Buck). It twists, just a little. Part lessons-learned melodrama and part laff-riot, the movie works very hard to keep all its balls in the air. And though I can’t say that I’d recommend paying money to see the fabulous Catherine O’Hara get her leg humped by a dog, Orange County does include a few — very few — less tiresome moments.
O’Hara plays the mother of two boys: aspiring writer and high school whiz kid Shaun (Colin Hanks, son of Tom, and almost scarily like him) and Lance (Jack Black, whom you doubtless have seen in OC‘s incessant television campaign — it’s co-produced by MTV Films — putting red licorice ropes up his nose and playing with his fruity cereal). The two brothers couldn’t be more different — Shaun is ambitious, smart, and sweet, and Lance is lazy, sloppy, and, well, he’s sweet, too. He only looks repulsive. Just finishing high school and tired of running the household for his alcoholic mom, Shaun is desperate to get into Stanford, because the author of his favorite novel in the whole wide world teaches there. Shaun is naïve enough to think that if he writes this guy a fan letter, with one of his own short stories enclosed, that he’ll be a cinch to get in. This fantasy is enabled by the fact that he has a phenomenal transcript, and assurances from his perpetually distracted guidance counselor (Lily Tomlin).
The plot kicks in when Shaun is rejected (because of a transcript mix-up), and his friends and Lance offer to help him. His eminently sensible girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk, daughter of Sissy Spacek and art director Jack Fisk) starts the ball rolling by bringing her wealthy grandfather (Garry Marshall), a Stanford alumnus, to meet Shaun. That falls apart because Shaun’s family acts out in monstrous ways (the short list of hilarities includes mom’s drunkenness, Lance’s drug-test urine left on the coffee table, and mom’s wheelchair-bound second husband’s general incapacity). And so, Lance offers to drive him to Stanford, a few hours away, to talk to the Dean (Harold Ramis). It’s never clear where the urgency comes from, or why a phone call concerning the transcript mix-up won’t fix everything, but never mind.
The brothers and Ashley take a little road trip to Stanford, meet some people, destroy some property, and learn some things about themselves — the same stuff that happens in most any mainstream teen movie, times two… or is it divided by two? Shaun carries the sincere kid on a mission plot, so whiny and anxious to get his way. And Lance carries the irrational yucky humor plot, with lots of bumbling, falling down, and ass-crack-showing. He also hooks up with a secretary at Stanford (Jane Adams), who apparently finds him irresistible. There’s a revelation when Shaun meets that famous writer (Kevin Kline) and a reconciliation when Shaun arrives home to find his mom in bed with her ex-husband, his dad (John Lithgow). And that’s about it.
More than anything else, Orange County is mundane. This despite or because of the fact that Lance works hard — as a character and as a prop — to make broad physical jokes. And while Jack Black has made himself something of a fixture at MTV (they love his rollicking rock duo, Tenacious D), his role here reprises most of what you’ve already seen him do. And while no one in Orange County gives an especially inventive performance, you might expect that the designated funnyman would be, well, funny.
Clearly, the point of retreading the licorice-in-the-nose joke or the misplacing-the-urine-test joke is to retread, to do something that is at once familiar but also goofy or disgusting. But it’s still tired. This is the most depressing part of Orange County. Following on the critical and box-office thwacking that Not Another Teen Movie took last month, and coming just before Slackers, it’s not exactly a hopeful sign that mainstream teen comedies are headed anywhere new.