Force of Will

Ferrell comes into his glory in Old School.

Old School
Bong hit: Ferrell keeps Old School chugging - along.
Bong hit: Ferrell keeps Old School chugging along.

Someone's got to say it, so let's start here: We've underestimated Will Ferrell.

Honestly, it wasn't that hard to do. His Saturday Night Live stint was never hugely impressive, as he'd often fall back on the same shtick of yelling his lines with detailed enunciation in a passive-aggressive tone that made him sound like he was about to burst into tears right afterward, augmented with an omnipresent deer-in-the-headlights stare. Then there was his George W. Bush impersonation, which didn't sound or look particularly like W., and given the wealth of material to draw from wasn't nearly as funny as it should've been. And of course, Ferrell was one of the main characters in both A Night at the Roxbury and The Ladies Man, two films that should have earned all involved a permanent revocation of their Screen Actors Guild cards, if not a special circle in hell. By comparison, even his grating arch-villain turn in Zoolander looked accomplished.

In the new movie Old School, however, Ferrell owns the screen. Maybe he should hang on to that SAG card after all. Sketch comedy must just not have been his forte; as it turns out, the man's not yet 40, but he was born to play "midlife crisis." After seeing this movie, you'll be hard-pressed to imagine any other actor who can so effectively make the transition from mouthing inane platitudes about how great a Saturday spent at Home Depot and Bed Bath & Beyond is going to be, to tearing off all his clothes and rushing the stage at a Snoop Dogg show, where he tries to steal the mic from Warren G and rap along. Externally, he's the grown-up guy putting his past aside for a married life full of meals at Olive Garden, but inside he's still Frank the Tank, a wild man with a drinking capacity to match the nickname. Like all the other characters onscreen, he's still a somewhat broad caricature, but there are hints here that an acting career beyond comedy may exist for Ferrell, should he ever want it.

Ferrell's backed up by Vince Vaughn, hilariously updating his Swingers bit by adding several extra layers of denial -- no midlife crisis is ever gonna hit him, because he'll never admit that he's approaching midlife. And then there's Luke Wilson, ostensibly the lead and the closest thing to straight man on display. While brother Owen has mastered the art of sounding stoned all the time, Luke's talent here is for sounding just slightly hung over on every line delivery, which works so long as we're not expected to believe that the character has learned a life lesson or somehow changed. When that time comes, it's less passable. But hang in there -- it'll only be a few more seconds before Ferrell takes a pratfall again.

The plot, such as it is, plays almost like a parody of Fight Club. Emasculated by his boring job and promiscuous wife (Juliette Lewis, playing airhead a little too well), Mitch (Wilson) falls under the influence of his more anarchic friend Beanie (Vaughn) and turns his house near a college campus into a fraternity for both students and other emasculated office workers, plus one really old guy (Patrick Cranshaw, the obligatory old guy used in most comedies these days). Before long, the notoriety of the house, which doesn't require any actual college affiliation, has gained Mitch a reputation as "The Godfather," to the point that virtually everyone everywhere knows who he is and will do any favor for him if asked. It's too bad Vaughn doesn't turn out to be an imaginary friend, which would've made the parody complete.

Naturally, there's an evil dean (Jeremy Piven, in a role reversal from PCU) and a love interest (Moonlight Mile's Ellen Pompeo), who carries a torch for Mitch despite being tethered to a bland beau (Craig Kilborn). But there are one or two surprises. The pop cultural references, for instance, span generations -- the most notable being homages to The Graduate and Chariots of Fire. The soundtrack does likewise, as Snoop Dogg and Andrew W.K. represent the kids' tastes, but the thirtysomethings get their own rock hits too, among them Metallica's "Master of Puppets" and Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again."

The real question, though, is "Is it funny?" Depends who you ask. The jokes run about a 50-50 ratio for my tastes, but the mostly college-age kids at the screening applauded every one. It's less funny than director Todd Phillips's previous Road Trip, but on the plus side, it doesn't depend as much on gross-out humor. As with Road Trip, Phillips graciously provides much gratuitous nudity and swearing, and he may find that he's touched a nerve with this one. Who among those folks who got good grades in college doesn't feel the tiniest pang of regret that they missed out on the wilder shenanigans films like Animal House promised us? On the face of it, Old School's moral seems to be that you have to grow up sometime, but the director's obvious glee for mild debauchery tells another story: You're never too old not to grow up. And that's something movie audiences seem to like hearing.

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