Ah the joys of the college movie. Since the 1978 release of John Landis' Animal House movies have consistently (and for the most part poorly) tried to recreate that unique and (for some of us) long ago experience of college. The frat parties and morning classes, the forgotten nights and random partners, the school spirit and binge drinking, all of it seems ripe for comedic hijinks. How can you miss? Well, go back to the early 80's when films like Porky's and its 32 direct to video sequels screwed it up, move to the late 80's and see a much more favorable job done in Real Genius. Then we have the early 90's PCU and just a couple of years ago Road Trip. These are hit or miss flicks. Most share one thing in common, they focus on the dumb. The stupid co-eds or stupid frat boys, the stupid fashion or stupid sex. A whole lotta dumb in these flicks. Not much smart, and the best of that recent bunch (Real Genius) wasn't content being a college flick, and brought the government into the mix, substantially removing it from its Animal House heritage.
Now from director Todd Phillips (the aforementioned Road Trip) we have Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell, and Vince Vaughn in Old School. In the spirit of honesty I explain that I looked forward to hating this film. Really relished the chance to write one of those spite filled, tongue in cheek, look I have more good lines than the film does reviews. Sadly this would not be the case because while Old School is still no Animal House (which is like saying Kobe is no Michael…of course not but that doesn't mean he sucks either), this is a very funny movie. Loaded with one liners, absolutely shameless, and decidedly better than it has any right to be, Old School might end up being the funniest movie of 2003, and it seems like that all happened by accident.
The premise is as thin as the shirts the girls wear in the obligatory wet T-shirt contest (bonus points for using KY jelly instead of water). Three older men, all with family problems, move into a house near a fictional college campus. The dean of said college happens to be the kid they all picked on back in college. He wants them off campus, they just want to party. There's a reason the tagline for this film was "All of the fun of college, none of the education." Of course it ends with a climactic showdown, of course the dean cheats, of course the boys overcome, and of course we have a significant amount of screen time devoted to Will Ferrell's naked body.
Please reread that last part because I'm telling you as a straight male, it is disturbing. I've talked to several straight women who said yes, indeed, it was also disturbing to them. We also all agreed that while you might want to see this one before dinner, the nakedness is some of the funniest stuff in the film. Luke Wilson plays Mitch Martin, whom everyone refers to as The Godfather, because it's his house. Ferrel is Frank the Tank, a man who's affections run from beer bongs to blow up dolls, even though he has a wife. The not so secret weapon of the bunch is Vaughn, Trent from Swingers who is basically playing Trent six years, a wife, and children later. Vaughn steals virtually every scene he's in, and Wilson in particular seems happy to give Vaughn the laughs.
There are many, many good people in very small (small enough to be non-speaking) roles, including Snoop Dogg, Andy Dick, (who teaches a class one would not find in high school), Craig Kilborn, Juliette Lewis, and Jeremy Piven (of PCU) as the Dean. Many of the supporting characters names are in fact their names (Matt Walsh plays Walsh, Rob Corddry plays Robert Corddry, etc) which leads one to believe the filmmakers brought a bunch of their friends on the set, turned the cameras on, and had fun.
And the friends they brought in (Walsh and Corddry are both contributors to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart airing Monday through Friday on the otherwise ironically named Comedy Central) are smart people, which I think is the reason Old School doesn't fall into that Porky's/Meatballs/Revenge of the Nerds school of filmmaking. These people really are smart. They really do know what the difference between low-brow and high-brow comedy is. Yes, boobs are good; no they are not the basis for ten minutes of comedy. Yes, the passing of gas can be funny, but in certain precisely regulated doses. Phillips and his crew knew who would know the line between funny and stupid. Is Old School smart? Hell no! Is Old School funny in a stupid way? Of course.
Which is why I think it worked. There's not much new here (the KY sub for water is about as original as it gets), but its fun, and the people on screen are obviously having so much of it, it becomes hard not to join in. Even for a jaded old critic like me, Old School was infectious.