In 1998, director Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence) made a wonderful little film called "Zero Effect" that starred Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller. "Zero Effect" was mysterious, hilarious, sensual and surprising. It signaled the arrival of a talented writer/director who was willing to take his films to unexpected places. For his follow-up, "Orange County" (IMDb listing), Kasdan resorts to tipped urine cups, pratfalls and same-sex kissing to roust laughs out of the audience. What the heck went wrong?
Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanksson of Tom) is a wandering high school student living in Orange County, CA who only believes in the waves he surfs and the love for his girlfriend (Schuyler Fiskdaughter of Sissy Spacek). When Shaun discovers a book left behind at the local beach, he finds the story contained inside changes his life's ambitions. Instead of smoking pot with his friends, Shaun now wants to apply for college at Stanford and learn how to become a great writer. When a guidance counselor at school sends in the wrong, considerably less impressive transcript, Shaun enlists the help of his burned-out brother (Jack Black) to head over to Stanford to correct the mistake before it's too late.
Unfortunately, I think MTV (who produced the film) got to Kasdan's sensibilities. Less reliant on cerebral laughs, "Orange County" is one of those comedies that is directly aimed at such a specific audience that any kind of criticism couldn't be taken seriously. But coming after "Zero Effect," and even his much lauded work on the remarkable television show "Freaks And Geeks," how can one not be saddened by what Kasdan brings himself to do just so he can fill a paltry 85-minute running time. You can tell with every frame that Kasdan's heart is not in this. Instead of leading his cinematic soldiers into battle, Kasdan merely slouches in the back row this time, lobbing juvenile jokes with all the conviction of a director paying his dues for the chance to do something he enjoys next time out.
Written by Mike White ("Chuck And Buck"), "County" is an incomplete picture that runs out of steam after 60 minutes. Also an alumnus of "Freaks And Geeks," White brings none of his deft writing from that show to this new film. He structures the picture as kind of a high school version of a Farrelly Brothers' film. Relying on bodily fluids to get laughs instead of focusing on the actual plot. A plot which is also annoyingly nitpickable.
Thankfully, Kasdan has the insight to rescue his sinking ship by using celebrity cameos to plug the holes. Lily Tomlin, Chevy Chase, Garry Marshall, Harold Ramis and John Lithgow all turn in slyly funny performances. They are given the rare chance to be entertaining without all the burden of expectation. This is especially true for actress Catherine O'Hara, as she is finally allowed to act like the great comedienne she should be recognized as. In the role of Shaun's alcoholic mother, O'Hara is a riot, clearly in her element mixing character pathos with cartoonish shenanigans.
Kasdan also makes a wise choice by letting co-star Jack Black ("Shallow Hal") do whatever it is that pleases him. A nuclear weapon of nervous comedic energy, Black uses his limited screen time to his advantage, turning mundane scenes of tired comic devices into gold. This might not be Black's finest hour, as he is doing his chubby/slob bit again, but his seemingly from-the-hip line readings and flopping around are the funniest things in this often unfunny film.
Taking on the lead role is Colin Hanks, and I hope the actor thanks his lucky stars that he has such a powerhouse lineup of supporting actors to back him up, because without them, Hanks would be unbearable. Often shouting for no reason and using every closeup as if it were his last, Hanks just isn't suited yet to carry a film. Though Hanks can hardly be blamed when Kasdan and White have given him very little to do, he nevertheless makes a strong impression that another 5 years of supporting work is necessary before he takes another lead role.
While laughs do come here and there in "Orange County," it is the bigger picture of a talented director selling out that concerns me. If Kasdan can bounce back from this quickly, then "County" will end up being a mild curiosity on an impeccable filmography. However, if this signals a new direction for the filmmaker, then we all better brace ourselves for impact.
Filmfodder Grade: C-