Saturday, January 3, 2009


Watching director Jake Kasdan's take on teenage comedies in the PG-13 rated "Orange County" (** out of ****) reminded me of those contemplative coming-of-age youth yarns John Hughes cranked out in the 1980s with Molly Ringwald and Matthew Broderick. This silly, sentimental satire about a high school graduate who dreams about attending Stanford University in sunny California, so he can study creative writing under an author he idolizes amounts to a contrived, half-squeezed comedy of errors.

Refreshingly, "Orange County" relies less on gross-out body fluids buffoonery and more on crazy character flaws for its mirth. Unfortunately, "Zero Effect" director Jake Kasdan (son of "The Big Chill" helmer Lawrence Kasdan) and his wacky writer Mike White of "Chuck and Buck" fare better as comedians than as storytellers. When they serve up their laugh-out {-loud jokes, they deliver them with crackerjack comic timing. On the other hand, their tale about a young writer who wants to move away from insulated Orange County, California, with its liberal lifestyles to seek greater things for himself and the resolution of conflicts in his far-out, dysfunctional family life qualifies as the typical pulp of a Walt Disney potboiler.

Everything that can go wrong for goal-oriented Vista Del Mar High School class president Shaun Brumder (Tom Hanks' son Colin of "Whatever It Takes") in "Orange County" does. Although he is a straight-A student, all Shaun lives for is surfing the waves with buds Chad (R.J. Knoll of "Turbulence") and Arlo (Kyle Howard of "House Arrest") until one of their pals perishes when a wave of tidal proportions washes him away. This tragedy prompts Shaun to take stock of his life. He sells his surfboard and takes up writing. One day at the beach, Shaun literally unearths a copy of Marcus Skinner's novel "Straitjacket" (no such book exists; it's a plot gimmick) and reads it repeatedly until he has every line memorized. When he discovers Skinner (Kevin Kline in a cameo) teaches creative writing at Stanford, Shaun asks his flaky high school counselor (Lily Tomlin at her hilarious best) to mail his scores to the university. Incredibly, she mixes up Shaun's A-plus transcript with another student's F- minus transcript. Naturally, Stanford rejects him. Nothing Shaun's animal activist girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk, Sissy Spacek's daughter of "Snow Day") can do helps. Eventually, Shaun's black sheep, ten-toed sloth of a brother Lance (Jack Black of "High Fidelity") comes to his rescue. Lance piles Ashley and Shaun into his truck, and they recklessly careen off to Stanford in a last ditch effort to crash the admissions office. Instead, pyromaniac Lance burns it down.

Colin Hanks could easily follow in his father's footsteps. He makes a believable, ordinary, fall guy whose world tumbles down around him despite his best efforts, but somewhat manages to triumph. Nevertheless, heroic as the younger Hanks is, he cannot compete with subversive comic genius of Jack Black who swipes every scene as slobby Lance. Had the story been as ripe as the ridiculous gags, "Orange County" might have been a fresher farce.

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