Review: Old School (2003)

Old School is lackluster in terms of plot but exceptional for its performances. After a decade, I rewatched it the other night, and while the story and the humour it generates are unremarkable if not disappointing, Will Ferrell is just as good as I remembered him, Vince Vaughn better, and Luke Wilson such a great straight man that he’s sorely missed in today’s comedy scene. This makes Old School an interesting milestone in both the careers of its lead actors as well as its director, Todd Phillips.

Phillips, of course, went on to make the wildly successful Hangover trilogy. Old School is a good early example of Phillips’ admirable interest in lighting and shooting comedies just as well as any drama or action flick. (Say what you will about The Hangover Part III, but it’s extremely good looking.)

In terms of narrative though, Old School fails to capitalize on many of its promising story ideas, particularly the idea of adult men creating a college fraternity. This idea is scantily developed beyond the expected parties and a bit of hazing. Even the best moments in the climactic competition to defend their association with the college, such as Will Ferrell’s ribbon dance or Vince Vaughn smoking during gymnastics, are fairly straightforward and predictable. Other promising threads, like Mitch (Wilson) unknowingly hooking up with a high schooler (Elisha Cuthbert), are for used for a couple awkward scenes and then dropped.

At times, the film plays like a collection of moments from other movies, whether specifically or generically. Early on there’s an airport security gag that’s funny but extraneous to the story; it could have been used in any comedy, with any character. There’s also the standard comedy wedding scenes. Some conventional office humour. Jeremy Piven plays an evil dean. More specifically, I started noticing references to Fight Club throughout (to name three examples: first, the way the K-Y jelly fight is shot in the basement recalls the fight club in the basement; second, the scene where the server at the diner recognizes Mitch as “the Godfather” recalls Edward Norton being recognized as Tyler Durden; and, third, when Mitch tells off his boss). With the exception of a pool scene lifted directly from The Graduate that even cues up Simon and Garfunkel, most of the references are smart and subtle, unlike Anchorman and pretty much any other Adam McKay movie, which shout their references in your face.

By now, it might sound like I didn’t enjoy the movie. But Old School is less funny for what it’s about than for who is in it. It certainly makes up for its narrative deficiencies with its great cast. Luke Wilson’s performance as Mitch is somewhere between his brother Owen’s charm and Ron Livingston’s exasperation in Office Space. Wilson crafts a likeable central character who is plain enough to complement the large performances by Vaughn and Ferrell, but who is also physically astute enough to generate chuckles with his bewildered responses and confused drawl.

Vince Vaughn’s Beanie is almost an anticipation of Bradley Cooper’s jackass Phil in The Hangover movies, but he remains less despicable and skeezy and more officious and blunt. (Beanie may constantly lament the shackles of marriage, but he doesn’t actually betray his wife when he gets the chance to.) Beanie is funny because Vaughn is going full steam all the while suggesting that Beanie always think he’s the only one in the room with a head on his shoulders.

And then there’s Frank the Tank, one of Will Ferrell’s most memorable and arguably his best performance. It’s one for the ages! Firstly, we get just enough of him. Many of Ferrell’s later films in which he is the lead or co-lead give us too much Ferrell, in my opinion. He’s also funnier when he doesn’t set the entire movie’s tone, but rather acts as the idiotic blip in the movie world. Thirdly, Frank is likably stupid, in the vein of Buddy in Elf, and not unpleasantly and egotistically stupid, like Ron Burgundy. He’s oafish, but we still like the guy. Our pity only adds to the comedy.

Old School came out in 2003, just before the big surge in raunchy R-rated comedies propelled by the success of Wedding Crashers (2005), and in comparison to what’s come after, it almost looks tame. The bodily fluids are relatively limited. There’s foul language, but it’s used just enough to make it funny and is not just the normal mode of talking (the earmuffs jokes with Beanie kids wouldn’t work otherwise). Look, I don’t mind raunch, but too many comedies right now use extremeness to obscure their lack of wit or comedic capability. While The Hangover movies purposefully push things well beyond any measure of taste, Old School’s soft R isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s an example of adult humour used smartly and hilariously. I mean, we still see more than enough of Will Ferrell’s naked ass.

8 out of 10

Old School (2003, USA)

Directed by Todd Phillips; screenplay by Todd Phillips and Scot Armstrong; starring Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Jeremy Piven, Ellen Pompeo, Juliette Lewis, Craig Kilborn, Elisha Cuthbert, and Seann William Scott.