Orange County (2002)

“You sent in the wrong transcript?!”

What can go wrong will go wrong in Orange County, a film full of cliches and stale drama and just enough laughs to circle back for time and time again. I’ve probably seen the movie at least 10 times since its 2002 release, and I always have the same issues. It’s clunky, uneven, too short and underdeveloped. But the story, told through the lens of white male privilege on the California coast, manages to tell something universal as well. A lot of young people invest great swaths of time resenting their families and their homes, only to come to understand that those people and places have helped shaped them once they’ve finally left the nest. Orange County greatly benefits from this realization.

The leading man is Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks). Tall, fresh-faced, athletic enough to be a surfer dude and smart enough to apply to Stanford with no safety schools. Not many characters in this genre can ride a wave and be class president at the same time. His long-time girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk) is an empath, a dogged supporter of Shaun’s writing and an animal lover who plans to go to the local college. She’s not too keen on his aspirations to get out of dodge, reminding him that a long-distance relationship will likely fail. Shaun has tunnel vision though and the Ivy League calls to him. Maybe there he’ll find intellectualism and sanity. How could he ever be a serious writer if he were to stay in Orange County? And how are we supposed to know he’s a great writer when we never get to read or hear his work for ourselves? That’s always bothered me.

Most things in Orange County go poorly for Shaun until the third act, suggesting that the negative energy he continues to put out in the world will forever strike at his heel like a venomous, karmic snake. Shaun feels slighted and intentionally sabotaged by the world. By his defensive school counselor (Lily Tomlin) who mailed out the wrong transcript. By his mom Cindy (Catherine O’Hara), a drunken divorcee remarried to the much older and ailing Bob (George Murdock) as a means of sustaining their wealthy lifestyle. By his unreliable, pill-popping brother Lance (Jack Black). And by his dad Bud (John Lithgow), a workaholic business man who’s one bad deal away from an aneurysm, and who’s new wife (Leslie Mann) decades his junior has affairs right behind his back. Shaun thinks himself to be an anomaly, but he’s every bit as selfish as they, if not more so.

Shaun’s entitlement sends him on a road trip to Stanford, accompanied by Ashley and wildly driven by Lance in a beat-up Bronco. He hopes to sway the Dean of Admissions (Harold Ramis) into adding his name to the acceptance list, but, as we’ve come to expect at this point, everything goes awry. Shaun does meet his idol Marcus Skinner (Kevin Kline), faculty at the university and the author of “Straight Jacket,” the aptly titled book Shaun randomly found in the sand and proceeded to read more than 50 times in a single Summer. Skinner liked the draft Shaun mailed him, but notes that his story needs an ending. The film circles back to where everything began, taking a scenic route full of foolish hijinks when the more interesting and intelligent scenes could have been played out by personally character driven moments that either got overlooked or weren’t even filmed in the first place.

Orange County isn’t a particularly great or original comedy, although it does benefit from being endlessly quotable and memorable, especially the scene-stealing Jack Black. It’s written by Mike White and his script delivers good jokes with thoughtful social context (watching it now, after the recent USC admissions scandal, makes certain aspects seem comically prescient). Jake Kasdan’s direction is that of an early filmmaker, using endless dutch angles (a sharply titled camera instead of being square) to convey Shaun’s inner disarray, and the whole movie seems to flounder around in a state of incomplete, arrested development. It’s a kind of new, suburban, sun-kissed picture that operates off the same “there’s no place like home” appreciation as the definitive The Wizard of Oz. And yet Orange County, ironically, doesn’t have the time at a mere 80 minutes or the interest to develop into something juicy, or a story that’s worth peeling back. Thankfully it’s funny enough, but it could have been so much more had it stopped looking at what was on the nose and decided to investigate what was beneath and above.

“I think it could be a movie.”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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