“Old School” fogies even clown around in college

With “Old School,” filmmaker Todd Phillips has graduated from writing and directing college movies starring college-aged actors to writing and directing college movies starring 30-something actors. His last film, “Road Trip,” was a cultish hit among the “American Pie” fanbase and was an effective exercise in comedic set pieces.

His current film, “Old School,” which has already grossed about $70 million, is understated by comparison (which says a great deal, considering this film features Andy Dick dressed in drag hitting Will Ferrell in the face with a frying pan). “Old School” is the better movie; it is funnier and the actors are greater talents; their styles more clearly defined.

Luke Wilson plays Mitch, a reserved lawyer who returns home early from a business trip to find his girlfriend in bed with several people at once. Vince Vaughn plays his malcontented pal, Beanie, a millionaire speaker-salesman who is bored with his wife and kids. Their friend Frank (Ferrell) is about to get married and the three of them appear together for the first time, as Frank’s bride approaches the altar. Beanie begs Frank not to go through with it and Mitch is busy agonizing over his girlfriend’s infidelities.

Their angst is the catalyst for the film’s blurb of a plotline; they begin a fraternity to spice things up and relive their lost glory days of college life. The plot matters very little and the film doesn’t really dwell on Beanie’s dull domestic life, Mitch’s wounded pride or Frank’s fragile marriage, except when these things provide comedy.

In general, the comedy really only comes from two sources; the slapstick fraternity hi-jinks and the skillful interplay between the three actors. Their very distinct brands of comedy are well balanced and they compliment each other in every scene.

Ferrell is the most physical comedian in the cast and his manic scream and blank stare are used to full effect. Vaughn is a gifted improvisational comic, as every “Swingers” fan knows. Wilson is the straight man, the Jerry Seinfeld, the sole voice of reason. Throughout the movie, he is plagued by misunderstandings; as in every sex comedy, the girl he really wants will inevitably think he is a pervert until the end.

The cast also is peppered with familiar faces like Craig Kilborn, Sean William Scott and Leah Remini. Juliette Lewis and Andy Dick both have effective cameos and Ellen Pompeo plays Nicole, Mitch’s object of affection. The film’s central 40 minutes are a barrage of sex jokes, frat-boy humor and “Animal House” nods – the funniest involve the “new” Frank slowly recalling his ability to drink large amounts of beer in small time increments.

Wilson’s character is funniest when trying to resist his newfound role as fraternity ‘godfather.’ Vaughn seems to have invented many of his lines on the spot and it would surprise me greatly if he didn’t come up with better dialogue than that which was already written (I don’t recall “Road Trip” deriving its comedy from the dialogue).

Ultimately, one can only pry so far into a movie like “Old School” before sucking the enjoyment out of it. The film will certainly pass any comedy litmus test: it is funny when it intends to be and often funnier than it should be. The credit goes to Vaughn and Ferrell, who get laughs by giving us exactly what we want from them.

Within the ever-growing sub-genre of campus comedies, “Old School” is light years beyond the competition, thanks almost entirely to the actors.