Old School

Young, dumb and full of fun. Will Ferrell elevates a potentially dodgy frat house caper to the promised land of laughter.

Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 06 May 2003 by Scott Morris
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Comedy is a subjective beast, and it tends to produce some fairly divisive reviews. None more so than Old School, which seems to have split critics 50/50. The audiences seem a little more decisive, giving a good reception at our screening and with good reason.

The set up is pretty simple. Mitch (Luke Wilson) leaves a stunningly dull real estate seminar early to surprise his girlfriend. This backfires when he discovers her getting prepped for a gangbang by watching some hardcore porn and playing blind mans in the buff with two others. Finding this sub-optimal, he leaves her slutty ass and moves into a house on the doorstep of the local university.

To Mitch, the move represents a fresh start. To his friends, it represents an opportunity to escape from their lives back into their college days. Beanie (Vince Vaughn) is married, with children and feels trapped by this. He handily is a self-made millionaire, having built up a chain of electrical goods stores. This is a useful plot device, allowing for all manner of expensive sound systems and guest stars to appear without having to explain how it got there, wasting time on exposition in a film where minute details are less important than big gags.

Beanie is the epitome of FHM, Maxim or any other lad's mag. He's got responsibility and wishes he hadn't. Subtlety is not this film strong points, and his pining for a different life is made abundantly clear while being co-best man along with Mitch at their good buddy Frank's wedding. As the beautiful bride walks down the isle, Beanie exhorts Frank to run as far and as fast as possible, with lines like "Well, let me be the first to say congratulations to you man; you get one vagina for the rest of your life." Vaughn has a pretty generic character to play with, and it through dint of effort and charisma that he rises above it to give an almost show stealing performance, aided by well-written, acerbic lines.

Almost, but not quite show stealing because Frank is played by Will Ferrell. Ferrell is fast becoming the most consistently excellent comic actor around, and Old School represents another solid performance. He's imbued with an entirely over the top, clutsy enthusiasm that makes his blundering around hilarious rather than irritating. Frank goes through with the marriage, but his wife immediately takes issue with him spending so much time at his friend's bachelor pad.

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To be fair, she has a point. Beanie is busy mentally outfitting sofas and bars into Mitch's home and salivating over the prospect of getting some serious ass. As part of this, to Mitch's surprise he throws a huge party, the first Mitch Martin freedom festival, with gigantic sound systems, a gigantic guest star in Snoop Doggy Dogg and some gigantic banners and promotion for Beanie's own Speaker City stores. Everyone enjoys themselves, with Frank perhaps having one too many beer bongs in a return to his college heavy drinking days as Frank The Tank. He's caught by his wife on a solitary streak though town, resulting in a quick separation and Frank crashing at Mitch's for the foreseeable future.

The frivolity looks to come to a swift halt when objectionable college Dean Pritchard (Jeremy Piven) declares the area the house falls in has been designated for college use only, giving them two weeks to vacate. Pritchard was bullied by the trio at school, which goes some way to explain his hatred of them. As often happens in situations like these, someone has a bright idea. While Mitch is off at work one day, Beanie starts a pledge drive for the colleges' newest fraternity.

Initially Mitch is upset by this plan but soon comes round to the others point of view that this could be a fair bit of fun. As owner of the house, it seems only fitting that he becomes known as 'The Godfather'. The new fraternity is unique in that it makes no pretence whatsoever about giving anything back to the community and members don't even have to go to the college to be admitted. Frank, Mitch and Beanie put the new recruits through a variety of the usual hazing / debasing / trust rituals, with suitably hilarious results.

Ferrell has been given license to ham it up as much as possible. He quickly slips into deranged boot camp sergeant style rants against the new recruits for minor offences such as forgetting the ice in the lemonade, while remaining hugely polite to everyone else, occasionally in the same sentence. Much of his on screen time feels very much like Fight Club played for laughs, and that's no bad thing. Ferrell plays well against his co-stars, Vaughn in particular.

Mitch is the film's calming centre, and it doesn't give Wilson anything like as much to play with. He's playing much the same character from Legally Blonde, just a nice guy, which Luke Wilson can play as well as anyone. He has a subplot about meeting an old flame from school, Nicole and her two timing boyfriend, providing the love interest and path to redemption for him, but it occasionally falls the wrong side of the charming / schmaltzy line. Thankfully it's kept to a minimum, as this isn't a romantic comedy and would feel more out of place were a greater emphasis placed on it.

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The chaos cannot be allowed to continue, and the Dean launches a scheme to remove the japesters from his campus, kicking out the kids from their college courses. The guys have one shot to get everything back by proving to a committee that they have the required school spirit, athletic and academic ability to be reinstated as a proper fraternity.

There is no hidden depth to this film. It takes a very basic concept and lets the actors run with it, which pays dividends. Many of the sections would fail horribly in less talented hands, especially the short role of Sean William Scott as a redneck animal handler, taking in a few old jokes but still making them amusing.

That is, I suppose, the main problem with the film. There isn't anything new or hugely inspired here, but that doesn't stop it being funny. It wisely chooses not to head down the gross out route of American Pie et al, providing something a little less cringe worthy and believable. Much of the laughs are based around people's fairly sensible reactions to Frank's decidedly non-sensible actions, grounding it a little better than the majority of these slapstick heavy lowbrow affairs.

It's not high concept, and doubtlessly it will be dismissed as an Animal House knockoff. The paths of the characters seem set in stone from the outset, and certainly no shocking twists occur. Is any of this important? No, not really. The only important question can be 'Is it funny?' and the answer in this case is 'Yes'. It's vibrant, energetic and frequently hilarious, with no stretches where I could honestly say I was worried that I hadn't laughed in a while.

Sometimes you want something thought provoking to cogitate over and discuss at dinner parties. You will not find this here. Sometimes you want a lot of silly jokes to watch for an hour and a half and giggle along to without being in any way challenged. This you will find here. It's marketed as a simple comedy, to me it succeeded as such and therefore can only earn theOneliner seal of approval.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 Tippymarks.

Todd Phillips
Cast list:
Luke Wilson (Mitch Martin)
Will Ferrell (Frank)
Vince Vaughn (Beanie)
Jeremy Piven (Dean Gordon Pritchard)
Ellen Pompeo (Nicole)