- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

"Old School" is more than just a clever name for a comedy featuring fraternity hazing and lots of skin. It's an attempt to relive an era when gross-out comedies such as "Porky's" and "Animal House" prepped teens for college pranks to come.

The latter's co-producer, Ivan Reitman, serves as an executive producer here, and his adolescent spirit permeates the film.

When done with rebellion and wit, as in the crude 1978 film starring John Belushi, the combination of crude humor, adolescent abandon and lots of skin can be a guilty pleasure. (Just mention the phrase "food fight" from that exuberant Rabelaisian farce and try not to smile.)

"Old School's" laugh quotient is higher than expected, but the film's heart is as shallow as a tapped-out keg. Its juicy premise men on the cusp of adulthood returning for a final taste of their younger, wilder days is never given a chance to breathe.

Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell star as disillusioned pals who forge a fraternity for grown-ups.

"Old School" opens with real estate salesman Mitch Martin (Mr. Wilson) coming home to find his live-in girlfriend (Juliette Lewis) in bed with a few "new friends." Disheartened, he breaks up with her and rents a house on the outskirts of the local university.

That's all buddy Beanie (Mr. Vaughn) needs for inspiration. Why not use his pal's house for fraternity-style parties? The hastily assembled Mitch Martin Freedom Festival is born.

Watching Frank (Mr. Ferrell) explain to an inebriated student at the party why he can't drink that night he's getting up early to hit Home Depot with his new bride is to grasp the essence of the chasm between man and man-child. It's a fine moment, as is its payoff, an extended streaking sequence that's funnier than it sounds.

News of the party reaches the university's dean (Jeremy Piven of "Serendipity"), who threatens to shut down the house, citing an obscure zoning regulation.

The overgrown boys fight back with an equally overlooked regulation that allows the house to be a home for student groups. They form a ragtag fraternity comprising students and random neighbors to keep the good times rolling.

"We will provide no public service of any kind; this I promise you," Beanie tells the first rush class, a motley assortment that includes a frosty-haired 89-year-old.

While the predictable battle with the dean rages, Mitch re-connects with an old gal pal, now a single mom dating a smug Craig Kilborn. That love story might have injected a little heart into "Old School," but in the end, it's all buildup and zero payoff.

Mr. Wilson, coasting on his haphazard good looks, makes for a blandly appealing co-star, while Mr. Vaughn gets still more mileage from his "Swingers" swagger.

Still, "Old School" rises above its (admittedly not very tough) genre competition. Credit director Todd Phillips (2000's painless "Road Trip"), whose limited resume proves he can stage comedy far more effectively than many of his peers. For one thing, he doesn't telegraph his punch lines as every other teen-comedy director seems to do these days.

Another thing the young director does right is give Mr. Ferrell room to roam. Unrivaled in how giddily he releases his repressed id, Mr. Ferrell, in his first sizable gig since graduating from NBC's "Saturday Night Live," lends the film its anarchic spirit.

What college graduate hasn't taken a moment between coffee breaks and deadlines to think wistfully about those carefree college days?

"Animal House" raised bad taste to an art. "Old School" is probably worth a visit (provided, that is, it hasn't been too long since you left your old school), but it's hardly worthy of the bad name of "Animal House."


TITLE: "Old School"

RATING: R (Sexual situations, alcohol abuse, nudity, slapstick violence and vulgar language)

CREDITS: Directed by Todd Phillips. Written by Mr. Phillips, Court Crandall and Scot Armstrong

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

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