If the Farrelly brothers had directed Animal House, it might have come out something like Old School, which loses points for sloppiness but earns extra credit by doing just about anything for a laugh. Animal House wasn't exactly a masterpiece, but Old School makes it look like Battleship Potemkin. The plot's held together with Scotch tape, and the characters don't develop so much as congeal, wallowing in their frat-boy cluelessness. In fact, the whole thing would seem like a bad episode of "Men Behaving Badly" if it weren't so consistently funny, thanks in large part to Will Ferrell, who sticks the movie in his pocket early on and takes off running. Has this guy ever gotten the credit he deserves? Here he literally bares all ' for minutes on end ' as part of his general assault on our funny bones, a degree of commitment only Kathy Bates could truly appreciate.
A men-will-be-boys comedy, Old School imagines what it would be like if three guys in their 30s suddenly decided to start their own fraternity. Never mind why they decide to do it; you can probably figure that out. (Parrr...tay!!) In the Animal House scheme of things, Ferrell is Bluto, a loose cannon with a very short fuse, and Vince Vaughn is Otter, the guy pulling all the strings. Except you have to imagine an Otter who's gone to seed, winding up with a wife, two kids and an electronics store called Speaker City. Spraying venom like a cobra, Vaughn's Beanie has squeezed a lifetime of resentment into the 10 years since college. Basically, he wants what he once had: fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, although not necessarily in that order. And Vaughn, for the first time since Swingers, has the swaggering authority that could still become his great contribution to screen comedy. He's money.
So is Ferrell as Frank the Tank, a party animal whose movie-opening marriage lasts about as long as it takes to chug a beer. Ferrell's specialty is guys who want to be regular guys but are in fact highly irregular guys, forever stuck in that limbo between nerdy and almost-cool. Frank, who gets halfway to the quad before realizing he's the only one who answered his call for an all-campus streak, is a bottomless well of comedy juice. My favorite bit is when he accidentally shoots himself with a tranquilizer dart (don't ask), wonders out loud whether he's going to be okay while the dart dangles from his jugular vein, then slo-mos it over to the swimming pool, where he winds up reenacting a famous scene from The Graduate. Director Todd Phillips, who co-wrote the script with Scot Armstrong, may not expect us to read very much into that cinematic homage. This is the guy who brought us Road Trip, after all.
The idea of three thirtysomething guys showing no signs of growing up could be repellent, so Phillips and Armstrong made one of them, Mitch, the movie's moral center. As portrayed by Luke Wilson, Mitch is a sad sack Ã la the Ben Stiller character in There's Something About Mary. He means well, but life keeps fish-hooking him in the cheek, as when he sets off the alarm at an airport's security checkpoint and winds up with a soldier's assault rifle pointed at his chest. Better looking but somewhat blander than his brother Owen, who's currently smirking his way through Shanghai Knights, Wilson doesn't carry the movie, but he does ground it, making it possible for Phillips to indulge in such comic flights of fancy as having Andy Dick deliver a lecture-demonstration called "The Art of the Blow Job" to a group of concerned housewives. Now that's something you won't find in Animal House.