Director Todd Phillips, who's developing quite the college-comedy oeuvre (Frat House, Road Trip), centers Old School on three friends saddled with varying degrees of commitment: newlywed Frank (Will Ferrell), father of two Beanie (Vince Vaughn) and the freshly single Mitch (Luke Wilson). When Mitch moves into a house temptingly close to the local college, the boys, led by the devilish Mitch, shuck off the relationship ball-and-chain to start a fraternity whose only requirement for membership seems a willingness to be the physical butt of every joke.
The concept of old guys revisiting their school days to escape the grind of real life (aka castrating wives and dull jobs) has some potential in a culture perpetually seeking eternal youth. Had Old School shown the inherently pathetic dimension of a frat house as their Valhalla, the film might have amounted to something. Instead Old School suggests the reprobate fraternity is actually a kinda awesome idea. But sourpuss Dean Pritchard (Jeremy Piven), who's determined to get the hootenannying middle-aged frat boys kicked off campus, ruins all the fun.
Films like Old School, which should be lampooning the conventions of brain-dead college comedies, instead appropriates them. A victim of Hollywood's terminal reinvention problem, in which anything good is thought to be even better recast in new garb, Old School eventually drowns beneath its own KY Jelly-filled kiddie pool of chronic retread-itis.
The guy chemistry in Old School, a crucial ingredient of any testosterone comedy, never quite gels, despite gung-ho performances from Ferrell and Vaughn and a dull straight-man turn by Wilson as the group's wimp who learns to grow some balls.
The brilliantly doltish, dough-faced "Saturday Night Live" regular Ferrell only has to appear on-camera to inspire giggles as he whips out the standard repertoire of white guy-gone-beserk interpretive dance routines and shows an admirable willingness to strut his flat-assed nude bad self on screen. Vaughn, playing his usual sadistic smoothy, is the unhappily married owner of a chain of Stereo City stores with two children he totes around like ventriloquist dummies. In one of Old School's funnier gags, Beanie has his older child "ear muff" his hands over his ears before daddy -- frequently and with gusto -- belts out a string of epithets or talks with the boys about scoring some underage girl.
But there are also dry gulch periods when the comedy floweth in the manner of one of those interminably unfunny "SNL" skits. There are awkward, disjointed attempts to create new situations for free-range comedy, like a kiddie birthday party in which the reliably retarded Frank accidentally injects himself with one of the pony ride animal's tranquilizer darts. As if recognizing the need for an immediate transfusion of funny, a queeny Andy Dick leads a seminar for Frank's wife and girlfriends on blowjob technique. In what could be a power point instructional on comic misunderstanding out of Comedy 101, Frank jumps to all the expected, wrong conclusions.
A recent USA Today "think piece" discussed the reluctance of male audiences to "get with" the emotional estrangement and angst of The Hours that is meanwhile reducing their female companions to tears. Don't expect any comparable media hand-wringing about why women aren't warming to this meta-Animal House. There is always assumed to be a large enough audience of both boys and men anxious to experience the joys of underage buffoonery again -- as relevant a topic for discussion as why they might not care about grown-up emotions.
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