The most distressing thing that can happen when watching a comedy with a talented cast is to find yourself asking: “Why am I not laughing?” That was the point I reached while watching Old School, a raunchy comedy, with a wonderful cast that works hard but just can’t seem to get it off the ground.
Old School is a college frat house comedy, a far descendant of National Lampoon’s Animal House, but focusing on a group of guys who are pushing 40 and can’t seem to let go of the thrill of their college fraternity days. They are likable guys. There is Beanie (Vince Vaughn), a family man who feels trapped. There is Mitch (Luke Wilson), whose life changes after he catches his nymphomaniac girlfriend (Juliette Lewis) hosting an orgy in their bedroom. And there’s Frank (Will Ferrell) once known as “Frank the Tank”, a once-legendary party animal who is about get married and settle into a life of hanging curtains and picking through carpet samples.
What lies at the heart of these guys is that they can’t (or won’t) let go of their glory years of wild parties, beer bongs and easy women. They refuse to grow up and move on. Mitch, who owns an appliance store with Beanie, buys a house near Harrison College, his old alma mater. However, after a particularly successful party, he is informed by the college’s Dean Gordon Prichard (Jeremy Piven) that the house is zoned specifically for college social functions. He also reminds Mitch how he and his buddies use to pick on him back in college and with that, he happily presents an eviction notice.
What to do? The guys come up with a plan to keep the house and rekindle their campus lifestyle. Through an administrative loophole they find that they are able to form a fraternity, which they do out of misfit student, middle-aged co-workers, and an elderly retiree who is somewhere north of 90. Many of these guys (including Mitch, Beanie and Frank) are not even students at Harrison, but that’s part of the loophole, you see.
What follows is suppose to be a raucous college campus comedy but the movie is so erratic that it never finds its center. Director Todd Phillips, who has made better films than this like The Hangover and Starkey and Hutch, missteps here because his scenes don’t come together out of characters or situations. They are a series of gags built out of raunchiness and bad taste. That’s not a bad thing, but when the scenes don’t come together, it just feels like a series of sketches.
The lack of drive keeps the movie from building any kind of momentum. Plus, the characters, especially Mitch played by Luke Wilson, is so laid back that we never really understand how he got his reputation as a legendary party animal. Vince Vaughn’s Beanie is believable as a party animal but he is so angry that you wonder how he ever has time to have fun. And Frank is such a genial good guy that we want him to break away from this pack and live his own life, or his own movie. He’s the butt of embarrassments, especially when he gets drunk at a party and streaks down the middle of the highway. He has a scene late in the film when he is hit with a tranquilizer dart and ruins a kid’s birthday party that is so labored and so mean that I found myself feeling sorry for the kid.
I know I sound like a grump. I realize that I’m suppose to just sit back and enjoy these guys, but the movie never really goes anywhere. For me, I just didn’t laugh very much. Wait! I did laugh at one gag involving the pledges who are required to tie cinder blocks to a certain portion of their anatomy and then drop them off a ledge. The payoff was so unexpected that I laughed. It was the one genuine laugh in the whole movie. If the screenwriter could have built on that, they might have had something.