No film genre has been more exhausted and overplayed than the teen comedy. Greedy Hollywood executives drool at the promise of hordes of pre-adolescents migrating to the multiplex on Friday night to catch the latest incarnation of the same basic movie. First, beautiful young high schoolers who actually look 33 deal with the confusions of adolescence (read: sex) and the painful social hierarchy of high school, then they go to some sort of prom or dance where they conquer all their problems and finally live happily ever after.
“Orange County,” the latest teen comedy directed by newcomer Jake Kasdan, sinks even lower than these films by futilely trying to freshen the formula. Without the crutch of these cliches, the comedy is never quite able to find the right tone or rhythm. Moreover, it is rambling, slow and devoid of any coherent plot.
Colin Hanks (the son of Tom) plays Shaun Brumder, a talented aspiring writer who wants to attend Stanford University. Shaun feels trapped by the stagnant immobility of his small town, a vacuous world where people surf, sleep, drink and sit. Despite the protests of his alcoholic, codependent mother (Catherine O’Hara), Shaun applies to Stanford, but his plans go horribly awry when his ditzy college counselor sends in the wrong application. Unwilling to give up, Shaun travels to Stanford to explain the mistake to the head of admissions, with his disgustingly lazy older brother Lance (Jack Black) and his faithful, supportive girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk) in tow.
“Orange County’s” main problem is its intense focus on Shaun’s desperation. His need to escape his hometown creates an odd restlessness and impatience with the film’s own characters and settings. Even the worst of teen comedies places faith in the world it creates. It’s a fundamental, unavoidable flaw that makes the film very painful to sit through; as Shaun dreams of a world outside of Orange County, I dreamed of a world outside that movie theater.
The film goes from bad to worse after Shaun and his team head off to Stanford. At this point, the writer seems to run out of ideas: the trio’s aimless wanderings around campus kills any potential promise the film might have had. The movie loses its already waning purpose and becomes a poor excuse to show old men taking drugs (in a very inexplicably motivated scene) or buildings burning down. Furthermore, Kasdan intertwines these episodes with a side story about the reconciliation of Shaun’s divorced parents, a sequence that wants to add layers to the supporting cast but only serves to detract from the momentum of the central story.
Young Hanks emerges from this train wreck relatively unscathed. He exudes that elusive everyman quality that his father possesses, and I think his future is very bright: with age he will develop a wry wit to match his wide-eyed comic vulnerability, and he will become a wonderful leading man in the vein of John Cusack or his dad. Unfortunately, right now he lacks the experience as an actor to lift the material above its own ineptitude.
All the film’s funniest moments belong to Black. He has mastered the art of playing the inert slacker: the drugged-out drawl, the I-don’t-give-a-crap vacant expression, and the staggered, disoriented walk are made especially hilarious as Black wanders through his house wearing disgusting T-shirts and briefs. Like the rest of the film, though, this character falls apart when the Stanford shenanigans begin. I also find it interesting to note that Black’s visit to the “Late Show with David Letterman” elicited far more laughs than the entire 90 minutes of “Orange County,” a comparison that points to the untapped potential a weak script failed to capitalize upon.
The rest of the supporting cast is a who’s who of big names in small roles. Sissy Spacek’s daughter Shuyler Fisk is pretty but bland as Shaun’s girlfriend, Ashley; John Lithgow and Catherine O’Hara play the self-absorbed parents, and both actors are far superior in almost everything else they have done; and Lily Tomlin has a weird, surprisingly unfunny cameo as the confused college counselor.
“Orange County’s” failure to freshen a tired film genre poses an interesting question: is there any hope for the teen comedy? What is the key to making this mass-market drivel rise above its fickle target audience and have a more lasting impression on our culture? Until Hollywood can produce classics like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Breakfast Club,” maybe they should just stop trying.