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(2003) (Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell) (R)

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Comedy: Facing midlife crises, three men decide to start their own fraternity at a nearby college and live their carefree lives once again.
Mitch (LUKE WILSON) has just come home to find his girlfriend, Heidi (JULIETTE LEWIS), involved in a ménage a trois. His friend Frank (WILL FERRELL) has discovered that married life to Marissa (PERREY REEVES) is crimping his bachelor style and livelihood, while their other friend and successful businessman, Beanie (VINCE VAUGHN), is facing his own midlife crisis, what with the wife, kids and domestic life.

Thus, Frank and Beanie are excited when Mitch rents a house near the local college since they see it as their refuge and retreat where they can party like they did back in their earlier, single days. To start things off with a bang, Beanie throws a huge party that's a hit with the college students. Frank ends up drunk and streaking down the street, much to chagrin of Marissa who's driving by. The next morning, Mitch wakes up in bed with Darcie (ELISHA CUTHBERT) who he later learns is an underage high school student.

Their party life is soon threatened, however, when their former classmate and the college's current dean, Gordon Pritchard (JEREMY PIVEN), decides to claim the rental house as college property. In response, Beanie decides to turn it into a fraternity house where any students and non-students can join. As that's occurring, Mitch also runs into another former classmate, Nicole (ELLEN POMPEO), who's obviously interested in him despite having a boyfriend, Mark (CRAIG KILBORN).

As the guys relive their college days, Pritchard does everything in his power to make sure the fraternity is dissolved. From that point on, the three friends do what they must to make sure their fraternity remains open so that they can continue having fun.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
When I was in college, I remember a professor telling his students that we should enjoy the collegiate experience since it would be the last time we'd have so much freedom and free time. Of course, none of us believed him, what with all of the papers, projects, exams and parties to attend.

Now that several decades have passed, those of us with mortgages, jobs, kids and/or other responsibilities realize he was speaking the truth. Accordingly, many of us long - to varying degrees - to return to those simpler, less restrictive and more fun times.

Some people call that having a midlife crisis, and various men have been known to react to that by getting shiny new models of sports cars and/or women. Of course, if one could just go back to school or even join a fraternity once again, that would seem to be another good solution, now wouldn't it?

That's what several characters think in "Old School," a low-brow comedy obviously inspired by and hoping to be a later day and middle-aged version of "Animal House." That 1978 film set the standard - however low that turned out to be - for such films and even inspired various copycat pictures and even a short-lived TV show. The target audience and various critics loved it. Yet, there's no denying that the film wasn't much from an artistic standpoint, and really just consisted of a series of loosely connected comedy gags.

Following his disparate looks at college life - the 1998 documentary "Frat House" and 2000's "Road Trip" -- writer/director Todd Phillips returns to the subject matter once again. Not surprisingly, the effort pretty much follows the "plot to be damned" and "anything goes" formula that worked for "Animal House." The result, however, isn't as funny or entertaining, either from a frat/college life or mid-life crisis angle.

The former involves three men somehow managing to form a fraternity at a nearby university and then allowing anyone to join. That part of the plot is threadbare at best and certainly isn't believable for a moment on any account.

Yet, it doesn't necessarily have to be as long as the material works from a comedic standpoint. Unfortunately, Phillips and co-writer Scot Armstrong ("Road Trip") miss far more often than they hit with their material. As a result, and much like an elongated "Saturday Night Live" skit that this resembles, the attempted humor and related strain to make it work soon becomes tiresome.

It doesn't help matters that neither the filmmakers nor the three principal leads -- Luke Wilson ("The Royal Tenenbaums," "Legally Blonde"), Will Ferrell ("Zoolander," "The Ladies Man") and Vince Vaughn ("Domestic Disturbance," "The Cell") - make the main characters or their plight and subsequent solution engaging or funny enough.

Wilson's character returns home to find his girlfriend -- Juliette Lewis ("Enough," "The Other Sister") in a small role - ready for a ménage a trois, while Ferrell is newly married - to Perrey Reeves ("The Suburbans," "Smoke Signals") - and can't get used to the thought of losing his bachelorhood. Meanwhile, Vaughn's character is a multi-millionaire family man who simply longs to party like the old days.

There's potential there, both in revealed and yet to be discovered varieties, but the cast and crew don't mine the material fully. For the premise to work, we need to see them and their lives being henpecked and emasculated to the point of exaggeration, and then watch in amusement as they come up with a solution (and its subsequent comedic complications). There simply isn't enough of that occurring here.

It doesn't help matters that the film's various "dramatic" moments - which are presumably supposed to make us care about the characters - fail at that and are otherwise abysmal. As they occasionally pop up, one expects such material to have some sort of comedic payoff. None of them do, however, and instead come off as incredibly flat, much like many of the comedic efforts.

That's certainly true with the subplot material involving Jeremy Piven ("Black Hawk Down," "Serendipity") as the mean and conniving dean who will do anything to rid his school of the middle-aged interlopers who just so happen to have been his classmates back in the day. There's potential there as well, but most is wasted and/or completely ignored.

Various episodic bits feature a number of performers including Craig Kilborn (the late night TV show host), Elisha Cuthbert ("Believe," TV's "24"), politico James Carville and rapper Snoop Dogg, but none of them amount to anything. It's almost analogous to a party where various people just drop by but don't do much to energize the event.

As far as the three leads are concerned, Vaughn is the most entertaining to behold as he elicits a palpable frat boy mentality. Ferrell obviously has no qualms about showing off his less than Adonis-like body, but most of his material never escapes the confines of a "SNL" skit. That leaves Wilson as the straight man. With a weakly written part and mostly reserved performance, he comes off as far too boring for a film like this.

While watching this effort I obviously not only kept thinking of "Animal House," but also Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd doing their old "wild and crazy guys" skit. The funniest thing about that bit was that their characters didn't realize how goofy, stupid and out of place they were. I wanted to feel the same thing with the characters here, but only a few moments of that managed to break through.

I'll admit that I laughed a few times at the stupid material, but I'd guess that for most viewers the laugh ratio will be inversely proportional to their age (notwithstanding elementary school kids and infants). Certainly not as bad or painful to sit through as last year's "Van Wilder," but still rather flat comedically and certainly dramatically, "Old School" isn't as funny as it could and should have been. It rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed February 13, 2003 / Posted February 21, 2003

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