Orange County

(2002) *** Pg-13
min. Paramount. Director: Jake Kasdan. Cast: Colin Hanks, Jack Black, Catherine O'Hara, John Lithgow, Schuyler Fisk.

Very seldom does a modern comedy come along which makes me laugh out loud, even amidst a guffawing preview audience. Orange County achieved this feat...repeatedly. In other hands, Michael White's script might have produced results more akin to recent predecessor Road Trip, a movie hard to hate but even more difficult to love. Here, as directed by Jake Kasdan and performed by Colin Hanks, Jack Black, Schuyler Fisk, Catherine O'Hara, John Lithgow and others, this teen comedy with familar axes to grind pays surprising comic dividends.

Hanks (yes, Tom's son) plays Shaun Brumder, a high-schooler repentant for wasting time surfing and smoking weed. Inspired by Stanford professor and novelist Marcus Skinner, Shaun commits to making something of himself. Despite his admitted lack of discipline (and perhaps because the Vista Del Mar High School faculty includes an illiterate English teacher played by White), Shaun builds up an impressive transcript, which dotty college counselor Lily Tomlin misfiles. Shaun's Stanford dream abruptly turns into a nightmare.

The hapless Shaun has plenty of other help in royalling screwing up his life. His household includes the requisite Mike White motherly Hispanic woman (a family maid), a mostly non-responsive, wheelchair-bound stepfather, Shaun's perpetually wasted brother Lance (the irresistable Jack Black), and his selfish, tunnel-vision mother, brilliantly played by Catherine O'Hara as a worst-case scenario of neuroses and motherly misstepping. Elsewhere, Shaun's father Bud (John Lithgow in rubbery faux-Shakesperean bombast form) lives the dream-nightmare with a gorgeous, young wife who's also an unfaithful nymphomaniac, while he spends all day on a headset phone, chasing Shaun's Ritalin-poster-boy half-brother around the home office.

Jake Kasdan (son of well-known writer-director Lawrence Kasdan) gleefully conducts the traffic of both his famous children peers (Shaun's girlfriend Ashley is played by Sissy Spacek's daughter Schuyler Fisk) and his father's buddies (note the celebrity cameo in the role of Marcus Skinner). The young Kasdan, who proved himself with entertaining debut feature Zero Effect, stays out of the way of comic whirlwinds Black and O'Hara-- both of whom presumably ad-libbed up a storm-- and sets an "Orange County" tone with a great soundtrack peppered with current pop favorites like Cake and liberal doses of the granddaddy of sun, surf and car music, ex-Beach Boy Brian Wilson.

The comic effects of the script occasionally leans a tad too heavily on the trendy technique of layering scatological disasters, but White (who wrote and starred in Chuck and Buck) gives juicy opportunities for actors to run away with the material. Though the picture is little more than an excuse for hijinks, surprisingly conservative in its message, and unlikely to stick in your brain for long, it's an awfully entertaining diversion nonetheless.

One of the high-schoolers in the similarly bizarre world of Twin Peaks comments, "It's like I'm having the most beautiful dream and the most terrible nightmare all at once." Orange County capitalizes on the surreality of modern "teen comedy" farces to have its decidedly unliteral, fable-like story both ways: as a descent into the lower circles of teen hell and as a hopeful, well-made-play resurfacing to placid calm.

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