Orange County Movie Review

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Somewhere inside the surprisingly fresh, sharply jocular, angst-of-youth comedy "Orange County" there's a trite, typical teen movie struggling to get out. But director Jake Kasden just keeps out-witting the monster, pulling the carpet out from under its inherent clichés and giving his characters the chance to breathe and break free of their stock moldings.

A screwball affair about a bookwormy high school beach bum from the SoCal 'burbs who thinks his life is over when he doesn't get into Stanford, this flick rises above the spiritless, increasingly insipid, cookie-cutter teen genre simply because Kasden ("Zero Effect") and screenwriter Mike White ("Chuck and Buck") cared enough to try a little harder.

Played with pitch-perfect Everykid exasperation by sublimely expressive string bean Colin Hanks (son of Tom), Shaun Brumder had his heart set on pursuing his literary aspirations under the tutelage of his favorite writer, a professor at the venerated campus. So when he finds out his rejection was the fault of an inept guidance counselor (Lily Tomlin -- in the first of several inspired cameo performances) who sent the wrong transcript, Shaun goes on a dogged mission to get the decision reconsidered.

He manages to secure a meeting with a member of Stanford's board (Garry Marshall), but his humorously dysfunctional family screws that up. His mom (Catherine O'Hara) gets drunk and starts grousing about her rich ex-husband who left her for a bimbo. And his permanently stoned, layabout brother Lance (Jack Black) picks an inopportune moment to emerge in his underwear, asking if he can "score some of your urine" for a drug test.

Feeling guilty, Lance packs Shaun and his ebullient, idealistic environmentalist girlfriend (Schuyler Fisk, daughter of Sissy Spacek) into a junker Ford Bronco and drives them up the coast so an appeal can be made directly to the dean of admissions (Harold Ramis). That turns out just as badly when Lance goes to sneak a smoke and burns down the admissions office.

Other mishaps stack up over the course of the picture, but describing the plot won't get across the subtle, steady sparks of originality in White's script or that extra layer of bona fide personality applied to each and every character.

Even the movie's most absurd circumstances (the dean accidentally gets high on hallucinogens) don't feel like they're contrived only to cram in a few lowbrow laughs. Clearly inspired by juvenile comedy classics like "The Graduate," "Animal House" and "Ferris Beuller's Day Off," Kasden lets the laughs come naturally, allowing his perfectly-cast actors dwell in their characters' humanity instead of turning them into clowns that beat their punchlines to death.

Young Hanks really sells his delirious frustration with the too-sunny world he lives in, with its manicured lawns and minivans. But he still clings to Shaun's dwindling enthusiasm for life. The kid has talent, great comedic timing and a gift for psychological double takes.

O'Hara is an understated riot as Shaun's miserable divorcee mom, lending the part a sad authenticity at the same time. Eschewing the histrionics antics of "Third Rock from the Sun," John Lithgow is back in astutely ironic form as Shaun's insanely egocentric, rolling-in-dough dad who may be finally emerging from his mid-life crisis. And Kasden knows exactly how to use wild man Jack Black, who cannot carry a movie (see "Shallow Hal") but couldn't be funnier or more oddly endearing than he is as Shaun's obnoxious, irresponsible loser brother.

Late in the film when Shaun comes face to face with his literary idol (Kevin Kline in another of the movie's great small roles), the professor has read a story the kid sent him and says, "The characters are unique and well drawn. You really love them. It comes through in the writing." He could just as easily be talking about this movie -- and that's what makes "Orange County" a truly rare teen comedy.

There isn't a single insultingly dumb or artificial moment in all of its mischievousness. It has twice the laughs and six times the personality of feeble, prefabricated sitcoms like "American Pie," and it doesn't hobble through its admittedly elementary plot by using misogyny and shock comedy as a crutch. If the producers that crank out flat pubescent fare like so much candy held themselves to any standards at all, films that get creative with the familiar like "Orange County" could be the norm instead of the uncommon exception.

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Orange County Rating

" OK "

Rating: PG-13, Opened: Friday, January 11, 2002

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