Some promising second-generation Hollywood talents can be caught playing a little winter ball in “Orange County,” a very slight amusement that faintly echoes every other suburban teen comedy that’s been made over the past 30 years. A fine group of comic performers manages to keep the screen worth looking at despite the obsessively one-note nature of this curious matchup between MTV Films and producer Scott Rudin. Presence of “Shallow Hal” star Jack Black could stimulate a measure of opening weekend B.O., but overall biz looks to be as mild as the pic itself.
A bit more might have been expected based on the past work of screenwriter Mike White, who penned the creepy indie “Chuck & Buck” as well as episodes of the TV series “Freaks and Geeks,” some of which were directed by Jake Kasdan. Latter’s 1998 debut feature, “Zero Effect,” showed some undisciplined promise, but while Kasdan (son of vet helmer Lawrence) continues to demonstrate skill for tapping into actors’ funny bones, an appealing yen for offbeat actresses and a greater feel for adult foibles than for youthful hijinks, he and White aim very low here and fail to take advantage of the abundant opportunities for social satire that its upper class and academic settings provide.
After having spent his young life riding the waves off Newport Beach and somehow warding off the toxic influences of his stoner older brother Lance (Black) and alcoholic mother (Catherine O’Hara), high school senior Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks, son of Tom) suddenly realizes that he’s destined to be a writer. The be-all and end-all of his existence then becomes getting into Stanford U., where his literary hero Marcus Skinner teaches.
And that’s it, the extent of the film’s subject matter. When Shaun’s application is rejected (thanks to some bumbling by college counselor Lily Tomlin), the earnest teen resorts to extreme measures to gain acceptance. In a mildly amusing set piece of comic embarrassment, Shaun’s chance to impress a school trustee (Garry Marshall) is systematically destroyed by his dense surfer buds, uncouth brother and tipsy mom.
Desperate, Shaun and his perfect girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk, daughter of Sissy Spacek and Jack Fisk) speed up the coast at night with Lance to intervene personally with the Stanford dean of admissions (Harold Ramis), which they do while lunatic Lance manages to burn down the entire admissions building. Shaun and Ashley even have a spat, but the trip produces a breakthrough after all thanks to Shaun’s chance encounter with Skinner (played by Kevin Kline in a substantial uncredited cameo).
Skinner’s encouragement and words of wisdom, about how many great writers (Faulkner, Joyce, Tolstoy, et al.) have had conflicted relationships with the places where they grew up, apparently give Shaun all he needs to jump-start his literary career, although the “There’s no place like home” moral seems more than a little dubious in this context, and misleading to boot.
Perhaps feeling that satires of spoiled upper crust SoCal kids have been done to death all the way from “The Graduate” to “Clueless” and beyond, White hasn’t attempted any cultural critique at all. Script contents itself with a few easy, if passably amusing, digs at such social phenomena as a Latina housekeeper who’s in therapy, the rich father (John Lithgow) who attempts to buy his son’s way into college by endowing a building, a divorce settlement casually arrived at in about 30 seconds, a high school English teacher who extols Shakespeare for having inspired so many good movies and the idea that attractive women marry loaded old men is a given.
Hanks is an agreeably appealing young leading man but seems too smart and serious-minded for the prevailing silliness surrounding him here. Similarly, Fisk, who has a wonderfully open and accessible personality, has far more class than the picture and would appear better suited to more realistic fare.
Black, on the other hand, revels in this extensive opportunity to detail the far horizons of chemically enhanced nuttiness; the parallels with the late John Belushi become increasingly obvious, but also apt. No doubt contributing far more than could have been indicated in the script, Catherine O’Hara is in terrific comic form as Shaun’s profoundly unhappy mother, who’s married to a wheelchair-bound geezer and can’t stand the idea that her son may be leaving home. Ramis’ college official undergoes a surprising drug-induced transformation, Jane Adams does a flip-flop of her own from rule-minded Stanford office worker to blissed-out sack companion to Lance, and Kasdan’s “Zero Effect” co-star Ben Stiller turns up briefly as a firefighter.
Score is loaded with lively pop tunes, which would appear to have repped a budgetary priority over production values, which are threadbare.