Thursday, August 18, 2005

They call them the Frat Pack: Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, brothers Owen and Luke Wilson and Will Ferrell. Whether binge drinking at keggers and streaking through the neighborhood or crashing weddings for their inexhaustible supplies of low-hanging amorous fruit, they yearn to extend their college daze just a little bit longer.

That isn’t enough for their comedy rivals, the Slap Packers — Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider and pals like “Saturday Night Live” alum Kevin Nealon and indie darling Steve Buscemi. They’re taking the Peter Pan approach to screen comedy. They won’t grow beyond early adolescence until they’re dragged, kicking and screaming, into a quasi-adulthood.

Is there room for two competing packs? Given the box office tallies from each, the answer appears to be yes.

At first glance, the packs appear to be cut from the same cheesy cloth. Neither works clean nor tidy. Check out the Frat Packers’ hard R antics in “Wedding Crashers” and “Old School.” Their bawdy humor matches the “Deuce Bigalow” films, which couldn’t stuff any more phallus gags in if Howard Stern were behind the camera.

Yet both groups have their warm, fuzzy sides.

Mr. Sandler’s “50 First Dates,” “The Wedding Singer” and “Big Daddy” all tried tugging our heartstrings.

The Frat Packers have a heart, too.

“Wedding Crashers” suffers from a case of chick-flick-itis in its waning moments, and “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” proved as sentimental as a comedy involving grown men hurling wrenches at each other can be.

Where the groups diverge is in their core appeal.

Mr. Sandler didn’t perfect that annoying, man-boy warble back on “SNL” for nothing. He routinely plays grown men who still think they’re 13, or maybe 10. His characters tend to grow a bit at the end of his films, but they remain child-like visions of what adults should really be. His slapstick humor, hardly more advanced than the broad physical shtick of the Three Stooges, represents the little boy in us more at ease pinching the girls than asking them out.

Sidekicks like Mr. Schneider and Mr. Nealon are on hand as playmates for Mr. Sandler’s inner child and suffer some serious body blows along the way.

All for a laugh, of course.

The Frat Packers appear to follow a similar path, but their antics embody other repressed yearnings.

Take “Old School,” which on the surface follows three pals who want to recapture their youth by pledging a middle-age fraternity. What the film really illustrates is not the urge to regress, but a dissatisfaction with the adult world.

The film’s truest moment comes when Mr. Ferrell’s Frank tells a group of college beer chuggers that he has to get up in the morning to hit Home Depot and other home fix-it stores. What adult can’t relate to the numbing thought of hours wasted examining paint cans and brushes?

Even in “Wedding Crashers,” for all its hedonistic glee, loyalty and commitment — binding the male leads to each other and, later, to their girlfriends — ultimately trump the drive to remain forever young.

The Frat Packers forgive us for looking at our lives as if they were an endless succession of chores. The Slap Packers go one step further, saying with a few modifications we can still live like teenagers.

Judging from their companionably winking cameo appearances in each others’ screen vehicles, both groups of actors share an appreciation of the mutual benefits of professional solidarity and strength in numbers.

A test screening audience a few weeks back in the District erupted in cheers when Will Ferrell showed up, albeit briefly, in “Wedding Crashers.” The actor couldn’t have known while shooting his “Crashers” cameo that his career would be needing some love this summer. Both the actor’s “Kicking and Screaming” and “Bewitched” underperformed at the box office.

What better way to insulate oneself from the vagaries of fame than some cinematic cross-pollination?

“Wedding Crashers” producer Andrew Panay says “Crashers” stars Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn suggested Mr. Ferrell for the small but important role as a revered mentor for dedicated crashers in the film’s final reel. Their idea came two weeks before shooting, but the production shifted as needed to accommodate Mr. Ferrell’s schedule.

Katharine Stalter, a former Variety editor and author of “The Indie Filmmakers: The Directors,” says the current cameo craze can tip its cap to the original pack, the Rat Pack

“There was your perfect predecessor,” says Miss Stalter of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and their pals.

The reasons for the crossovers boil down to comfort, she says.

“In talking to actors, what I hear a lot is people definitely have a comfort level working with their friends, people they already trust,” she says.

That speaks volumes in a town swimming with sharks.

“Owen Wilson knows Vince Vaughn will get the job done,” she says. “There’s no guesswork. In any line of work, people feel that way. They hire their friends.”

The comedy cameo doesn’t always click like it does in “Wedding Crashers.” Remember Matt Damon popping up in last year’s “Jersey Girl?” Not funny.

Just don’t expect these friendly drop-bys to dry up anytime soon, Miss Stalter says.

“We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg,” she says.

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