Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Orange County

I freaking love this movie. Check it out if you haven't seen it.

Orange County
Director: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Colin Hanks, Jack Black, Schuyler Fisk

The story is a relatively simple one: high school senior Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks, Tom's son) wants to go to Stanford to study with Marcus Skinner (Kevin Kline), the author of a book that changed his life. Shaun discovers Skinner's book after his friend Lonny dies in a surfing accident, and our protagonist decides he wants to become a writer - the thing is, he's got the grades and talent to accomplish this goal. But thanks to his bumbling guidance counselor (Lily Tomlin) who sends in the wrong transcript, Shaun is shocked to find a rejection letter from Stanford waiting at home. Desperate, he takes his animal-loving girlfriend Ashley (Snow Day's Schuyler Fisk) and drugged-out brother Lance (Jack Black) up to the school to talk to the Dean of Admissions (Harold Ramis) as a last-ditch effort to get in.

Let me start by saying that this film is not "great" on an epic scale - it's no Shawshank Redemption or anything - but for some reason, it connects with me on such a personal level that I get the same feeling of happiness every time I watch it. The fantastic script by Mike White is brilliantly conceived and even better executed under the direction of Jake Kasdan. The story mixes comedy and heart with a "one night adventure" that is much more pure than the likes of its contemporaries. I don't know if my reason for liking this film is because I heavily relate to the main character or what - my family isn't dysfunctional or anything, but the film effortlessly makes the characters easily relatable.

Jake Kasdan is the son of famous writer/director Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the screenplays for Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. The elder Kasdan directed many of his own films after the massive success of his first few attempts, and the skill has most certainly been passed down through the family. I've seen this film many times over the years and strangely this is the first time I noticed this father/son connection. Jake takes 2002's Orange County very seriously, and his love for the project shines through to near-palpable effect on screen. He very adaquately switches camera styles - from "wild" on the road trip to Stanford to "contemplative" when Shaun is considering his future profession - and essentially alters his directing to fit the script instead of reworking the script to fit his particular style. This is yet another example of Kasdan's respect for the source material.

(Spoiler alert for a seven-year-old movie ahead)

Speaking of which, Mike White's script is easily the highlight of this movie for me. The School of Rock scribe might have (I hate to say it) hit his career peak early with this one, as the rest of his films don't have quite the same multi-layered brilliance as Orange County. Let me explain: the film has a piece of metafiction within the story (Shaun's novella, entitled "Orange County") that doubles as a commentary on the film that we are actually watching. If this is confusing, fear not - I'll try to make this easy. When Shaun finally meets Marcus Skinner at the climax of the story, Skinner critiques his novella in such a way that directly applies as commentary to the film version of Orange County. In this bizarre alternate commentary universe, writer White takes the place of Shaun, and Kevin Kline's Skinner steps in as White's ideal film critic. When Skinner tells Shaun he has real love for his characters, he's speaking to White himself. When he describes Shaun's conflicted relationship with the place he grew up, White is again talking to himself through the pages of his screenplay. I can only assume this was a cathartic experience, since looking at it from a certain angle suggests a severe level of egotism that I don't believe the writer possesses. Added to this the fact that Mike White is gay in real life (which he even pokes fun at in the scene where Shaun tells his father he wants to be a writer), so it's easy to assume that he may have had his own conflicts with his family and the place he grew up. In any case, it makes for an interesting discussion and the metafiction adds a fresh component to an already sensational script.

Real quick - and I know this isn't a real profound thing to say, but I wanted to point out one of my favorite parts of the movie for other fans out there. As I'm sure most of you do, I loved how Shaun ran through the cheerleaders dancing to "Butterfly" only to discover when he finally gets to Stanford that the girls there are doing the exact same dance. What a great microcosm of the whole film.

Another staggeringly good aspect of this film was the music. The score was average, I thought, but in this case I'm speaking about the soundtrack. (There is a difference, you know.) Every song seemed perfectly chosen for the moment it was featured; there was never a time where I was "taken out" of the film because of a jarring musical choice. Granted, I'm not familiar with all the songs that were in the movie, but perhaps that is why I enjoyed the soundtrack so much - instead of constantly being inundated with flavor-of-the-week popular music choices, the filmmakers chose to present lesser-known tracks that actually melded with the greater overall work. This rationalization was surprising because Orange County is actually an MTV film - kudos to them for not pumping their usual garbage for promotion sake and compromising the movie. And Crazy Town can thank this film for extending their 15 minutes of fame into a solid half hour. Come my lady, come, come, my lady...

While the supporting cast was great in The River Wild, they are legendary in Orange County. Chevy Chase, Lily Tomlin, Harold Ramis, Catherine O'Hara, Ben Stiller, John Lithgow - an unbelievable assembly of comedic talent gathered for one flick. The relationship Shaun has with his family is something the seems very feasible in the real world. O'Hara and Lithgow both play kind of one-note characters, and the rest of the supporting cast is basically reduced to glorified cameos, but they get the job done in top form.

The real standouts are the leads. Some suggest Jack Black plays a supporting role better than a leading man role (which I would counter by saying that he was great in Peter Jackson's King Kong as a dramatic lead). Schuyler Fisk has really fallen off the acting landscape recently, but apparently has her own band nowadays and her debut album went number one on the iTunes folk charts. Regardless, she was great as Ashley the girlfriend - not obnoxiously attractive, but cute in a "long-lasting girlfriend" kind of way - and I think she was written as an intellectual peer of Shaun's in a world of drug users and drunks. I totally bought their relationship one hundred percent. But Colin Hanks is the one who steps to the plate in his first major lead role and holds this film on his shoulders. He's excellent as the over-achieving Shaun, and signs of his father's skill are evident and numerous. I don't understand why the guy isn't in more films - he's a remarkably gifted actor who can play multiple types of characters (I guess that would be the definition of "gifted actor," huh?)

In any case, Orange County remains one of my favorite films for reasons that I just can't fully explain. All I can suggest is that you see it and hope that you find the joy in watching it that I get every time I throw it into my DVD player. Until next time...


little did you know said...

Mike White's father is gay too.

Ben Pearson said...

I did know that, actually. Apparently they're on Amazing Race this season.

His dad didn't come out of the closet until 1994 though, and he used to be a reverend, so I figured Mike's childhood might have still been a little difficult.