Archive for Friday, February 21, 2003

Ferrell gets fully enrolled in ‘Old School’

(R) **1/2

February 21, 2003

The very sight of Will Ferrell is funny.

With his frazzled hair and vacuous stare, the towering comedian
always looks like he just finished speaking in tongues ... and he's
about ready to tackle you.

In "Old School," Ferrell's dopey but funny new film, the comic
streaks naked (extra naked), gets set on fire, French kisses another
man, sings the Kansas song "Dust in the Wind" at a funeral and
performs rhythmic gymnastics in front of a crowd. His reckless
abandonment to generate a laugh at any cost is infectious.

Despite a seven-year stint on "Saturday Night Live" that resulted in
dozens of hilarious characters, his movie career has proven uneven.
For every good bit he's delivered - as the accident-prone henchman
Mustafa in the "Austin Powers" flicks or playing a vain Bob Woodward
in "Dick" - Ferrell has suffered through some less-than-stellar gigs.
Much of this can be blamed on his former TV producer Lorne Michaels,
who is notorious for forcing new cast members to sign contracts that
compel them to appear in "SNL"-related properties. Thus the
explanation for Ferrell's involvement in "A Night at the Roxbury" and
"Superstar."

Luckily, the actor makes a legitimate connection with "Old School."
While he shares star billing with Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughn, the
wild card Ferrell is the comedic core of the picture.

Ferrell plays Frank, a 30-ish man who is getting married, much to the
chagrin of his buddy Mitch (Wilson), a real estate lawyer who
recently broke up with his wanton girlfriend, and Beanie (Vaughn), a
wealthy owner of an audio store chain who is a husband and father.

When Mitch moves into a house neighboring the college campus (the
fictional Harrison University), Beanie schemes to use the place as a
sanctuary for his domesticated pals. Soon, the location is party
central, with girls, booze and live rap performances available at all
hours.

Frank's new marriage suffers as the result of him returning to his
hedonistic ways when he was known as "Frank the Tank." Meanwhile,
Mitch gains the nickname "The Godfather" for his apparent governing
lifestyle.
Before long, the three are turning their little haven into an actual
fraternity and recruiting all sorts of pledges both young and old ...
as in 89 years old. This doesn't sit well with the university's
conniving Dean (Jeremy Piven), who has a past score to settle with
the three men.

This escapist, male-freedom fantasy benefits from better-than-average
casting and some amusing moments of improvisation by Ferrell and
Vaughn. Co-writer/director Todd Phillips shows real improvement
following his lame teen comedy "Road Trip," even though this effort
is a lot like that movie as if interpreted by smarter, older
characters.

The female roles (Leah Remini and Ellen Pompeo, among others) are
mostly eye-candy, but the film is hardly banking on women as its
target audience. However, most everyone will probably enjoy the
bizarre walk-ons by celebrities, some playing characters (arrogant
late-night host Craig Kilborn shows up as a jerky boyfriend) and some
playing themselves (political pundit James Carville gets to debate).

"Old School" noticeably lags in its third act when the fraternity is
forced to compete for the right to remain a part of the school. This
results in ridiculous, contrived gags (do we really need to see the
"fat kid" ace the gymnastic vaulting test?) that fall flat as often
as they generate a laugh.

Part of the hitch is the movie opts for a traditional good guy vs.
bad guy climax. The anonymous Dean that Piven plays might as well be
named Dean Wormer, because he and the script's finale are straight
out of "Animal House." It's not that ripping off that collegiate
classic is unwarranted, it's just that it seems to be the wrong
ending for a comedy primarily concerned with the internal conflicts
of these adult individuals.

But then there are those numerous sights of Ferrell - as when he
accidentally shoots himself in the neck with an animal tranquilizer
and groggily interrupts a children's birthday party. Who needs John
Belushi when you have that?

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