This article was corrected on Feb. 13, 2003.
A comedy about grown-ups pitched at auds young enough to think college is a nonstop party you’d never want to end, “Old School” is this year’s kinder, gentler “Animal House” — as if anyone needed “Animal House” to be kind or gentle. Slickly made, diverting albeit unmemorable effort from director Todd Phillips and his co-scenarist Scot Armstrong isn’t half so fresh or funny as their prior feature, “Road Trip.” Still, it’s lively and different enough from concurrent releases to score just as well with the same demographic, with some crossover to twenty- and thirtysomethings.
Prologue has realtor Mitch (Luke Wilson) returning early from a miserable day’s business travel, only to find live-in girlfriend Heidi (Juliette Lewis) engaged with two undressed, blindfolded playmates. He moves out — into a rental home just off-campus in the town where his college buds Frank (Will Farrell) and Beanie (Vince Vaughn) still live.
Beanie, who’s got a wife and kids but suffers from a serious case of bachelor-days nostalgia, decides the new house will be Party Central — and since he’s owner of an audio-equipment chain, the massive kickoff fest manages to get Snoop Dogg and crew as its “house band.”
Frank, meanwhile, is newly wed to Marissa (Perrey Reeves). She graciously allows him a “boys’ night out,” then is mortified when the notorious “Frank the Tank” of yore — who emerges like a John Belushi Dr. Jekyll after a copious amount of brewskis– is spotted streaking down Main Street.
This bacchanal attracts the attention of the male trio’s former teasing target Pritchard (Jeremy Piven), who’s now the university’s Dean. Intending to get the juvenile grownups thrown out, he has the house re-zoned as campus housing. However, Beanie finds a loophole — they’ll start their own fraternity. Craving quiet rather than collective madness after his recent spousal trauma, Mitch is a reluctant joiner. But he’s already got Frank as a housemate –Marissa having given him the boot — so why not.
As pledges are put through hazing paces, the “frat’s” anything-goes reputation (complete with KY-jelly topless wrestling contests) spreads like wildfire, a fact that does not aid Mitch’s earnest romantic pursuit of Nicole (Ellen Pompeo), a divorcee he’d had a crush on years earlier. Meanwhile Pritchard uses increasingly underhanded means in trying to shut the house down.
Pic lacks cumulative momentum or any especially hilarious setpieces to this point. But laugh quotient does jump a few notches with a climax that has the fraternity brothers forced to prove themselves worthy before an evaluation board — including debating against surprise guest James Carville — before a final confrontation with the vengeful Pritchard.
Compared with the clever situations and sunny attitude of “Road Trip,” “Old School” is less imaginative and more forced — the attempts to feign depth via semi-serious narrative developments, especially in Mitch’s dealings with Nicole, come off half-baked and unnecessary. Ample chances to lampoon aspects of college and civilian life are seldom taken. Script lacks verbal wit, with rote substitution of cusswords (not to mention a few dismaying homophobic jokes).
Nor are lead characters as idiosyncratically defined as one might like, though all are well played: Wilson’s protag is pretty much your basic Nice Guy, while the mix of misogyny and middle-class dad in Vaughn’s figure is pushed just far enough to be slightly creepy, but not far enough to be a wellspring of outre humor. The reliably funny Farrell’s periodic party-monster outbursts amuse, though he’s had better material.
Piven makes a dull villain (where’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’s” Mary Woronov when you need her?). In addition to Carville and Snoop, there are middling cameos by “Road Trip” vets Andy Dick and Seann William Scott.
Nonetheless, “Old School” is better paced and more brightly mounted than most youth-skewed comedies of late. Phillips knows how to make an audience feel like it’s having a good time, a knack missing from most such efforts since, well, “Road Trip.”
As in that pic, soundtracked song choices are well above average in terms of variety and ironic kick, with particular nods toward such chestnuts as Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence.” Tech contribs are all solid.