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"ORANGE COUNTY"
(2002) (Colin Hanks, Jack Black) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: After his college admission is rejected due to a technical error, a high school student does what he can to make sure he's accepted to Stanford, all while dealing with his family and friends who inevitably complicate his mission.
PLOT:
Shaun Brumder (COLIN HANKS) is class president at Vista Del Mar High School in Orange County, California. While at one time he was satisfied surfing with his buddies Chad (RJ KNOLL) and Arlo (KYLE HOWARD), Shaun now wants to be a writer thanks to discovering author Marcus Skinner's (KEVIN KLINE) novel about teenage life, "Straight Jacket."

Accordingly, he wants to attend Stanford where Skinner is a professor, not only to become a writer, but also to escape his family life. His mom, Cindy Beugler (CATHERINE O'HARA) is a depressed alcoholic who forgets to give Bob, her wheelchair-bound husband, his medicine, and doesn't want Shaun to leave home for college. His brother, Lance (JACK BLACK), is always high and/or in a perpetual daze, while their estranged and self-absorbed but wealthy father, Bud (JOHN LITHGOW), isn't happy with Shaun's career choice.

Shaun's only real support comes from his girlfriend, Ashley (SCHUYLER FISK), but she isn't crazy about the idea of them going to different colleges. Nevertheless, Shaun is intent on attending Stanford, but when his admission application is rejected due to a clerical error by Charlotte Cobb (LILY TOMLIN), Vista Del Mar's college counselor, his world is shattered.

From that point on, and with the assistance of Ashley and Lance, Shaun sets out to correct the error. That leads them to meeting various people along the way, including Arthur Gantner (GARRY MARSHALL), Stanford's Chairman of the Board of Trustees, and his wife Vera (DANA IVEY); Dean of Admissions Don Durkett (HAROLD RAMIS); and others, all of whom he tries to convince to admit him to Stanford, all while dealing with his family and friends who inevitably complicate matters.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
It's rare for young people to have already mapped out their career path while in high school. Heck, I know people who graduated from college with nary an idea of what they wanted to do or be, and still know some who aren't sure even after all of these years.

Shaun Brumder isn't one of those latter people, as he knows that he wants to be a writer and has figured out what he must do to become one. Of course, and not surprisingly, he isn't real. Rather, he's the amiable protagonist in the likable and moderately successful comedy, "Orange County."

As written by screenwriter Mike White ("Chuck and Buck") and directed by Jake Kasdan ("Zero Effect") - who seems to have chosen his career path of following in the footsteps of his father Lawrence "The Big Chill" Kasdan - the film seems to pose the notion that fate is punishing Shaun for being so decisive so early in his life.

Being a comedy, though, none of that's as deep or heady as it sounds, with the "punishment" coming in the form of comic misfortune that repeatedly surfaces in opposition to the young man's goal. Something of a combination of the old sayings "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all" and "You can choose everything in life except for your family," the picture quickly sets up its premise.

Namely, that's Shaun wanting to attend Stanford to study under a famous writer, but having to face various obstacles that pop up and complicate his mission. The first is that the wrong transcript was sent in his name, resulting in his application being rejected. Of course, a simple phone call would probably have resolved the issue right then and there, but then we'd have no movie. Thus, he sets out to right the wrong and encounters various opportunities and disasters along the way.

The results are mostly amusing but rarely hilarious, with the film being most memorable for a few funny scenes, some decent supporting performances, and more than its fair share of famous performers appearing in small or just cameo parts.

For a film like this to work and rise above its sitcom-like trappings, two things must be in place and then be executed just right. First, the viewer must care about the protagonist and his plight. I'm not talking about edge of your seat worry or burst into tears if he fails concern, but rather that we like and know enough about him that we want him to succeed and can laugh at his misfortune.

As that character, Colin Hanks ("Get Over It," "Whatever It Takes") - son of Tom - is decent in the role and occasionally reminds one of his famous father in his early years with his manic comedy mannerisms. Yet, in a story filled with exaggerated and/or over the top characters, he comes off as rather bland, no doubt caused by somewhat weak and uninspired character development.

Being a comedy of errors, the second thing that must work is the comedy both in setting up and then unleashing the various jokes and humorous situations. While most of the material is fairly amusing - at least generally in concept - it often feels rather flat and never goes quite far enough in pushing the humor to make it hilarious.

Case in point is the scene where Shaun is entertaining a Stanford official who's played by actor/director Garry Marshall ("Never Been Kissed," "A League of Their Own") in one of those extended cameo bits. The student obviously wants to impress the man, but his dysfunctional family and friends repeatedly embarrass him by their appearance and behavior.

Although some of that's amusing, the filmmakers never take it far enough to make it as much outrageous fun as it could and should have been (and as occurred in past comedic misfortune films such as "Meet the Parents"). That pretty much holds true for much of the rest of the picture, although there are some good moments scattered throughout the production.

Most notable are those involving Shaun's somewhat dimwitted English teacher who didn't read his work all of the way through due to some "big" words contained within it, and who rattles off a list of movies he mistakenly believes were based on the works of Shakespeare.

Some of the supporting performances aren't bad either. Proving that he's far better as a supporting character than a lead, Jack Black ("Shallow Hall," "High Fidelity") steals nearly every scene in which he appears, even if his drugged out sibling character is unevenly drawn and takes away too much of the spotlight from Hanks' character.

Schuyler Fisk ("Snow Day," "The Baby-Sitters Club") is okay but unremarkable as the protagonist's torn girlfriend, which also holds true for RJ Knoll ("Turbulence," "Crimson Tide") and Kyle Howard ("Baby Geniuses," "House Arrest") as his wild and crazy surfer buddies.

Catherine O'Hara ("Best in Show," "Home Alone") and John Lithgow ("A Civil Action," TV's "3rd Rock From the Sun") are fairly amusing as the protagonist's divorced and dysfunctional parents. Among those appearing in the cameo bits are Kevin Kline ("Life as a House," "The Big Chill") as a wise mentor, Harold Ramis ("As Good As It Gets," "Ghostbusters") as the dean who unknowingly ingests ecstasy, Ben Stiller ("The Royal Tenenbaums," "Zoolander") as a firefighter, Chevy Chase ("Snow Day," "Fletch") as the principal, and Lily Tomlin ("Disney's The Kid," "Tea With Mussolini") in a brief, but funny role as the high school counselor whose oblivious actions serve as the story's catalyst.

If the writing were stronger, all of those appearances probably wouldn't be as distracting as they are. As it stands, however, they make one pause to wonder if they owed papa Kasdan a favor and thus signed on to help out his son. Whatever the case, the resultant film is generally amusing, but clearly not as much fun as it might have been, and is near instantly forgettable. "Orange County" thus rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed January 8, 2002 / Posted January 11, 2002


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