Revisiting ‘Orange County’ 20 Years Later

Jack Black supports his on-screen brother Colin Hanks as a comic duo.

Plot: An over-achieving high schooler’s life turns upside down when a guidance counsellor mistakenly sends in the wrong application to his only applied school: Stanford.

One of those movies like “Ghost World” and “Legally Blonde” where the description can’t do justice to the experience.

I heard some idle talk about how this movie was proof that if you had the right parents you could get hired in Hollywood. True, and not true. If you’re making a feature on your own, it’s ’cause somebody with money thought you were right for the job. In this case, somebody was right. – Ebert

My brother and I started a podcast called ‘TFG Grand Prix‘. Our first full episode will be on Orange County (2002) which turns 19 next week. You can listen to it here.

The movie is old enough to be a college junior. My brother saw it in theaters. He doesn’t remember who with, just that he saw it. My other brother got this on DVD for Christmas which was used for this re-watch. 2002 was a much simpler time.

A pretty easy going film arriving at the end of the teen wave, the last of the pre-social media age. It is only natural Orange County with its casual professional vibe was produced by MTV Films. Every actor in this incredibly stacked cast puts in a strong effort. Like Mike Clark from USA Today said: “Every performer puts vigor into an otherwise limp exercise, as if word were out that this would be the last comedy ever made about late-adolescent concerns.”

I was 8 when the film came out. I am now 28. What struck me upon re-watch was how accurate it was in its depiction of college. The guidance counsellor (Lily Tomlin) who feigns your existence but does not have a clue. Then upon screwing up denies responsibility. How both rigid and flimsy the rules for admission into University are. Orange County holds up well. Colin Hanks was 23, Director Jake Kasdan, son of writer/ director Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark) was in his late twenties. Schuyler Fisk was 19. For a major motion picture led by newcomers its a confident film with great comic timing and sensibility. The camera is flexible and always in the right place. But it is also placed to get the most of out of the performers. As Kevin Kline’s professor says to the main character, a writer in the film: you really care about your characters.

Mike White wrote a great script and I think its one of his best (although I haven’t seen his earlier Jake Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Aniston starrer The Good Girl). Ironically, half of this movie takes place in Palo Alto. A six hour drive that Jack Black’s zealous character claims he can do in three. Black’s character Lance is a functional prescription drug addict and the family’s requisite screw up. But the level of focus he attains throughout the film drives much of the comedy. Black is one of the few actors who can make a character like that work. Simultaneously a no good dweller and embarrassment, but full of heart in the way you believe with his crazy amount of focus he can pull through. It helps Hanks’ put down towards him like is gentle and well earned.

Colin Hanks is believable as a brain, and we have no doubt he’s Stanford material, but you also believe in his easygoing Californian nature his character would have no problem palling around with a bunch of surfers. As the straight man he makes a great scene partner to everyone. It’s no wonder one of he excels in a large ensembles; such as Gus Grimly on Fargo, and Greg Short, on the four season sitcom Life In Pieces (streaming on Netflix). Catherine O’Hara is fantastic and quintessential as an alcoholic on the constant verge of a breakdown. Because hers and John Lithgow’s performances are so assured and so good you care about their divorced relationship in just one scene. O’Hara’s rapport with Hanks reminded me so much of my relationship with my own mother, its funny it was portrayed before it even happened. Worth mentioning is the light relationship drama played with Schuyler Fisk. Fisk’s character Ashley is possibly one of the all-time greatest movie girlfriends I’ve seen on screen who goes as far as to blackmail her best friend in order to get her boyfriend into Stanford. She is also as far from toxic as you can possibly get. For a girlfriend character written by a man in a teen comedy its very refreshing. By the time she finally get fed up with him its well earned.

Funny enough Hanks’ exasperation with everyone around him has as much vitality as his famous father’s. The movie smartly never overplays his predicament. This is still a movie about rich people not getting what they want so its appropriately low stakes which is why it works as a comedy. The story of a guy who should be smart enough to get out of where he is but has to depend on those he believes are holding him there. It’s a perfect youth centered story told by youths. And Hanks’ likeability ensures it takes the audience the right amount of time to come over to how selfish he is being before he has to reform himself.

The best thing about Orange County is how short it is: 82 minutes long. I have grown to appreciate the short feature length film (The Wolf of Snow Hollow is another sub-90 feature I’d like to make a list for). It doesn’t drag or overstay its welcome. And every scene has someone new in it ready to steal the show. Everything wraps up as well, the plotlines resolve and it all ties together. This article takes a long time to come around to the fact that Roger Ebert was right, and about a comedy no less, which he often isn’t. The rest there is to say about the film though, I’d recommend watching it first as it is on Amazon Prime. After that, stay tuned for the TFG Grand Prix Podcast on Monday where we will discuss this film further and the This F’**in’ Guy status in cinematic history.

Orange County is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Directed by: Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) Written By: Mike White (School of Rock) Produced by: Scott Rudin (The Social Network, Lady Bird)

Studio: Paramount Pictures/ MTV Films, Scott Rudin Productions Budget: $18 million/ Gross: $43 million Running Time: 82 Minutes

Cast: Colin Hanks, Jack Black, Schuyler Fisk, John Lithgow, Catherine O’Hara, Mike White, Chevy Chase, Garry Marshall, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Jane Adams, Ben Stiller, Nat Faxon, Lizzy Caplan, Leslie Mann, Harold Ramis, and that fat guy who was in the background of every movie in the early 2000’s and made out with Bar Rafaeli.

Rating: 3.5/5

  • How would you rate the film’s soundtrack? I dug the repeated use of Butterfly by Crazy Town. It really takes in the California daydream atmosphere that makes a good comedy setting

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