There is some irony in the fact that this movie is about a boy who is trying to escape from the cartoonishly dysfunctional adults in his life, when in reality it is the adults in the lives of the people behind the movie who got it made and contribute the only tolerable moments.
“Orange County” stars the children of two Oscar-winners (Tom Hanks’ son Colin and Sissy Spacek’s daughter Schuyler Fisk) and is directed by Jake Kasden, son of screenwriter-director Lawrence Kasden (“The Big Chill,” “The Empire Strikes Back”). Hanks plays Shaun Brumder, a high school senior whose mother (Catherine O’Hara) is a drunk, father (John Lithgow) is too busy making deals to pay any attention to him, and brother Lance (Jack Black) is drugged out and “constantly recovering from the night before.” Shaun also has an airheaded bimbo stepmother, a wheelchair-bound stepfather, and two stoned surfer buddies. And he has a sweet, animal-loving girlfriend named Ashley (Fisk).
Shaun’s dream is to go to Stanford because his idol, Marcus Skinner, teaches there. But when his addled college counselor (Lily Tomlin) sends the wrong transcript, he is rejected. So Shaun, Lance, and Ashley drive up to Stanford to meet with the director of admissions (Harold Ramis) to try to persuade him to let Shaun in. Unfortunately, they accidentally feed him some of Lance’s drugs and burn down the Admissions office. Funny, huh? But after a few moments with his idol, Shaun, like Dorothy, learns that there’s no place like home.
This is the kind of movie that begins with a comic death in a surfing accident, followed by a funeral at which female mourners wear black bikinis. Drugs and drunkenness are supposed to be so inherently funny that no actual jokes have to accompany them. Then there are the wildly un-funny moments involving forgetting to give a sick man his medicine and then having a lot of things hit him on the head.
Since the very beginning of time, movies have featured sensitive teenagers who wanted to be writers and were not understood by the people around them. It’s an obvious theme because movies are written by people who all started out that way, so it is an experience they know well and feel deeply. Besides, writing the story gives them some ability to pay back those who helped or subbed them. But in this movie, our hero shows no evidence of being sensitive or a writer. His opening letter to his idol is ungrammatical and mundane – it sounds like a fan letter to O-Town from an 11-year-old. It may seem like a detail that does not matter in a silly comedy, but in fact it is details like this that separate a string of pratfalls from a story. Even in a comedy, there have to be believeable characters you root for, and that never happens here.
Hanks and Fisk, as the ostensible force of sanity at the heart of the movie, don’t get much of a chance to prove themselves as actors, but they seem to have some presence. Black, as always, even with terrible material, is a joy to watch. The top talent in small roles, including O’Hara, Lithgow, Tomlin, and Ramis, as well as Chevy Chase, Ben Stiller, and especially Kevin Kline, are like the oases in the movie’s desert. Kline, who seems to be on loan from another movie, has a very nice scene with Hanks, and shows us how a real actor can create a complete character with just a few words in a script and a few moments onscreen.
Parents should know that despite the PG-13 rating there is a lot of material that they may consider inappropriate for teenagers. Abuse of alcohol and drugs is portrayed as normal and funny. While on drugs, a character drives dangerously, has casual sex, and sets a building on fire, also intended to be comic. Another character is accidentally given drugs, which is supposed to be funny. A character pretends to be asleep so that he can watch a couple have sex. Some kids may also find the horrendous parenting – or the fact that the dysfunctional parents decide to reunite — upsetting. One of the “good guys’ blackmails a friend by threatening to expose her sluttish behavior.
Families who see this movie should talk about what really goes into applying to college and how people respond to terrible family situations.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy How I Got into College.