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ORANGE COUNTY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Colin Hanks, Jack Black, Schuyler Fisk, Catherine O’Hara, John Lithgow, Lily Tomlin
Director:  Jake Kasdan
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  82 Minutes
Release Date:  June 18, 2002

“A WRITER??  What do you have to write about?  You’re not oppressed!  You’re not gay!”

Film ***

Is it really Hollywood, The Next Generation?

Director Jake Kasdan feels that’s an unfair assumption when discussing his movie Orange County, yet it’s a subject almost impossible to ignore.  When your two fresh-faced leads are the son and daughter respectively of Tom Hanks and Sissy Spacek, one can’t help but scrutinize them to see if there are glimpses of the magic that made their folks such major (and Oscar winning) stars.  Of course, Kasdan himself is equally analyzed in his effort, being the son of acclaimed director Lawrence Kasdan.

Comparisons, as I said, are inevitable, but rather unfortunate.  It’s impossible to hold the younger generation next to the elder one on the basis of one movie.  That being said, I must offer that all three show great promise in a fledgling effort.  Colin Hanks seems to have his father’s knack for playing a likeable everyman, and proves capable of carrying our emotional investment for the duration.  Jake Kasdan shows a penchant for style and rhythm…if you overlook a few technical gaffes here and there, one can easily imagine him capable of bigger and better things in the future.  And Schuyler Fisk is a real find, showing a penchant for comedic acting not necessarily associated with her famous mother. 

Of course, practically no actor, regardless of age, status or experience, can steal scenes away from Jack Black.  His rotund form and wicked grin makes you ready to laugh from his first appearance on screen…then when he delivers his lines with comic accuracy and physical flair, you’re at his mercy.  His star has been rising ever since High Fidelity, and he continues his string of good works with this picture.

I haven’t even begun to talk about the film itself, which is that very rare breed of teen comedy that manages to cross the line from parody into true satire.  Think Heathers with a good heart, and you get the picture. 

It takes place, as the title suggests, in Orange County, California, a place that comes across exactly like all of us who have never been to California picture it to be.  It’s a surfer party culture from top to bottom, where school takes place in architecture that’s so horrifically gauche that you can only hope you’re not looking at a real school (Kasdan informs us in the commentary that it IS real, amusingly enough) and is taught by teachers who actually say things like “William Shakespeare, in his day, was as famous as Leonardo DiCaprio”, and actually count Waterworld amongst the films based on his plays!

Shaun Brumder (Hanks) would be just another typical high school student in this saccharine environment, except for the fact that he’s a naturally good student.  His perception of life as all waves and bonfires changes one night when he discovers a novel by author Marcus Skinner (the actor is unbilled and a pleasant surprise, which I will not spoil) buried in the sand.  He reads it over and over, begins to appreciate the power of the printed word, and announces to the amazement of everyone that he wants to become a writer.

He applies to Stanford, where Skinner teaches, and seems to be a shoo-in.  But a rejection letter comes, because the guidance counselor (Tomlin, in a hysterical role) accidentally sent in a different student’s transcripts!

Down, but not out, Shaun engages in a series of attempts to right this wrong and make his dream come true.  Helping him, or at least trying to help, are his stoner brother Lance (Black) and his insufferable girlfriend Ashley (Fisk).  Not so helpful are his selfish, inept divorced parents (O’Hara and Lithgow).  A scene where two representatives from Stanton visit Shaun’s home is one of the most painfully funny I’ve seen in a long time, and I was grateful for the pause button so I could catch my breath!

But unlike most teen comedies that rely on plot (or crude attempts at one), Orange County is smart enough to go for the jugular in hilarious ways.  Anyone could create an inept guidance counselor who accidentally ruins a student’s life, but to have one do so and then try and diffuse the situation by calmly telling the kid “it’s nobody’s fault, really” is tapped into something.  Or a principal who forgoes a Nobel Prize winning author as a graduation speaker in favor of a close personal friend of Britney Spears.  The whole picture is filled with asides, toss off lines and insights that could easily be missed, but actually make up the soul of the film.  Writer Mike White may have successfully expanded the teen flick genre by actually emphasizing true satire over…are you ready for this?…sex, which is virtually non-existent here (save for one encounter involving Black…I will say no more).

The only flaw is that the movie loses its teeth at the end, and steers toward the obligatory happy ending.  There is more resolution here than anyone would call for, and it’s dangerously close to a kiss of death for a film that spent its entire preceding time laughing at how bad things can get.

That notwithstanding, I laughed loud and often during the film, I enjoyed the performances by both newcomers and veterans alike, and I found much biting wit in both White’s script and Kasdan’s sense of direction.  The irony is that in the end, this talented team may have created a film that’s above the heads of some of the genre’s typical target audience…this is a film more for people who laughed at M*A*S*H than the ones who laughed at Not Another Teen Movie, which actually would have been a title better suited for this film than the one that bore it.

Video ***1/2

Paramount delivers a quality anamorphic offering here, replete with California sun and warm, natural coloring throughout.  Indoors and outdoors photograph sensually well, with good levels of detail and definition, sharp lines, and well-rendered tones.  Apart from a light touch of grain in one or two darker scenes, this is a solid offering from start to finish.

Audio ***

Jack Black must have it written into his movie contracts that any film he appears in has to have great songs in it.  The music is the main highlight of this 5.1 mix, which includes a lively and appropriate collection of rock tunes accentuating the action.  Most of the film is dialogue oriented, however, and the spoken words all come across cleanly and clearly.  A strong effort.

Features ***

The highlight of this DVD is not the commentary track by director Kasdan and writer White, but the collection of MTV interstitials, which are numerous and absolutely hysterical…I got almost as many laughs out of them as the movie itself!  As for the commentary, it starts off rather weakly…both Kasdan and White come across like gleeful boys who just committed their first prank…but it gets better as it goes along.  They discuss the actors at great lengths, including the inevitable discussion about Hanks, Fisk and Kasdan’s famous lineage, and the assembling of their dream cast, and more.

Rounding out are a trailer and four deleted scenes (including a bizarre extension of Lily Tomlin’s big moment).

Summary:

Orange County forgoes the silly spoofing of its teen movie peers and goes right for the satire, with satisfying results.  A new generation of talent has come together to make a name for itself here, and we may very well be seeing all involved on the screen again in a very short time.  If this picture had the gumption to follow through all the way with what it started, it might have been considered one of the genre’s best ever…that being said, it’s still plenty better than most.