starring Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Ellen Pompeo
screenplay by Todd Phillips & Scot Armstrong
directed by Todd Phillips
by Walter Chaw Following in the tepid footsteps of National Lampoon's Van Wilder's attempt to update Animal House for the new millennium, Todd Phillips's Old School is better than it should be for a surprisingly funny Will Ferrell and another one of those laconic performances by a Wilson brother (Luke, this time) that just begs for a better vehicle. Less than John Landis's landmark ode to anarchy, however, Old School most resembles Hart Bochner's PCU--a film to which it pays unsubtle homage in the "ironic" casting of Jeremy Piven as that hale genre archetype: the button-down dean. (And PCU ultimately finds itself the superior campus clone comedy... For whatever that's worth.) As diaries of arrested development go, Old School at least has the wit to tell a story of thirtysomethings seeking to recapture the halcyon days of binge-drinking and the joys of sexual objectification, making it something of a middle class/mid-life crisis tragedy and fitfully engaging in a distracted way as a result.
Mitch (Luke Wilson) comes home from a business trip to discover that his live-in girlfriend is a disgusting white-trash whore (Juliette Lewis, typecast). Despondent, he moves into a house on the campus of a local college, a contingency of living there being that the house serve some sort of University purpose. With the help of his pals Beanie (Vince Vaughn) and Frank (Ferrell), Mitch starts a fraternity comprised of losers, gimps, and senior citizens--at odds with the school's evil dean (Piven) and his own designs for inamorata Nicole (Ellen Pompeo, just gorgeous). Inexplicably, Vaughn looks as though he were inserted digitally into the majority of his scenes (he wasn't), begging the question of if he's actually a CGI construct, why'd they make him so paunchy and sick-looking?
With the best use of a Kansas song perhaps ever (and surreal riffs on The Graduate and The Chocolate War), Old School's deficiencies are best summarized in the inclusion of an extended Snoop Dogg cameo (one that mirrors in spirit George Clinton's cameo in PCU) that finds itself completely out of tune with the rest of the picture. The film likewise grinds to a halt each time it contorts itself to pay obeisance to every hallmark of the genre, from a requisite statutory rape subplot to the asshole boyfriend (a horrible Craig Kilborn) to the Fight Club/Office Space workplace emancipation. It runs out of ideas at around the fifteen-minute point, spending the rest of the time taking the occasional well-placed pot-shot at those middlebrow albatrosses of Mancala and The Olive Garden before finally stumbling across the finish line with the obligatory series of happy endings. It's not so much a formula film as a series of sketches (sprinkled with a native intelligence) based on "highlights" from the Police Academy saga.
At the end of the day, Old School can be congratulated for avoiding, for the most part, the gross-out and flatulence gags while not being shy about baring breasts and man-ass. Wilson is a nice ambiguous figure at the centre of the film (and Ferrell, again, is surprisingly amusing), but it's impossible to sit through the film without marking the apes on Bluto, Otter, Larry Kroger, Chip Diller, Dean Wormer, and Kent Dorfman. Lightweight and mostly harmless, Old School does fine marking time during the February doldrums, offering the occasional laugh, the occasional cheap titillation, and the opportunity to chuckle at infirmity and obesity within the safe confines of a moviehouse packed with a demographic that will, tragically, either act out the events of the film when they reach their thirties, or already have. Originally published: February 21, 2003.