Saturday, 4 February 2012

Orange County (2002)

Dir. Jake Kasdan
Starring: Colin Hanks, Jack Black, Catherine O’Hara, Schuyler Fisk

I heard it said once that California is a state of mind. I would disagree. California is two states of mind.

In popular culture there always seems to be a very clear division between north and south California. So-Cal is the ‘great big freeway’ of L.A., Hollywood vacuosity and wannabe starlets, surf dudes and mall rats, money but no taste. North California is the hills, trams and clap-board houses of charming San Francisco, the universities at Berkeley and Stanford and the brains behind Silicon Valley, fog-bound shorelines and the awe-inspiring scenery of Yosemite or the giant Redwoods. I know that given a choice I would rather go north, young man.

The young man in the film Orange County in Shaun Brumder, played by Colin (son of Tom) Hanks. He has lived an outwardly privileged life in Orange County, California, the expensive beach-side residential suburbs south of Los Angeles. But these are brainless areas. His best friends are bread-dead Jackass-like surfers whose main joy is jumping off things, his mother (Catherine O’Hara) is a lush, his re-married father (John Lithgow) is absent, devoted purely to making more money while his nymphet second-wife plays with the pool guy, his brother Lance is a dope-head, his school relates to Romeo and Juliet  in terms of Leo di Caprio and Clare Danes and would rather invite Britney Spears to give a talk that Toni Morrison, and even the maid is in therapy. Only his environmentalist girlfriend Ashley (Schuyler Fisk) understands his need to write. In one of the best lines his father asks “What do you have to write about? You’re not oppressed, you’re not gay!” Following the death of his best friend (in a surf accident, natch) he discovers a dog-eared paperback on the beach: Straight Jacket by Marcus Skinner. In the way of these things, that book changes his life. From that day he decides that he wants to be a writer, and he wants to learn under Skinner, who is a professor at the prestigious Stanford University in Palo Alto (north California). Thankfully, for the purposes of the story, he also happens to be a straight-A student.

When he is rejected from Stanford – due to the college counsellor sending in the incorrect transcript – he is devastated. Together with girlfriend Ashley and Jack Black-esque brother Lance (Jack Black) they resolve to somehow make his dreams come true. Hilarity ensues. It seems that should one be rejected by the university of ones choice in America there are multiple ways of getting them to change their mind – inviting a school-mate’s grandparents (who happen to be university board members) around for tea, pleading directly with the Dean of Admissions, or – hell – just promising to buy the university a new building. In the end he discovers that the students at Stanford (such as the guy who wants to use his comparative literature degree to write novels, plays, films, whatever, maybe a TV series around vampires that is *really* about German reunification) are just as shallow in his eyes as the folks back home. A chance encounter with his idol Professor Skinner, however, Shaun realises that it is his connection to his family and friends – and to Orange County – that inspires his writing.

"I didn't go to college and look at me. I'm awesome!"
Lance (Jack Black) gives Shaun (Colin Hanks) some life advice.

The cast list is out of this world, with cameos all over the place. I’m not entirely sure why. Jack Black does classic early Jack Black – a stoner rock dude with his usual brilliant physicality. He is really the only character who gets serious screen time other than Shaun and Ashley. Needless to say he ends up on the run from the police in his underwear. John Lithgow is underused as the wonderfully shouty and insulting father. Kevin Kline pops up as Marcus Skinner. Lily Tomlin has two scenes only as the ditsy college counsellor. Harold Ramis has a bit more to do as Stanford’s Dean of Admissions who mistakes Lance’s ecstasy pills for painkillers. Ben Stiller plays it straight as a fireman and Chevy Chase has around three lines as the college principal. One is left wondering why. The comic elements are not fully formed. Ashley rescues a tearaway stray puppy. It appears for two scenes, then vanishes. Shaun’s wheelchair-bound stepfather Bob is used for some slapstick and then is forgotten about (his mother even agrees to get back together with his father while, presumably, her second husband is still in the house). Some of the best comedy scenes are gobbled up by the ill-equipped English teacher, who tries to interest his class in Shakespeare by pointing out that some great movies were based on his plays – not just Romeo + Juliet but also “Hamlet, West Side Story, The Talented Mr Ripley, Waterworld, Gladiator, Chocolat…” Notably he is played by Mike White who also wrote the screenplay.

The film is produced by MTV, which may explain the soundtrack of 2002-era pop hits. Butterfly by Crazy Town in particular makes three appearances, two of them with choreographed dance sequences. To be honest it could have benefitted from a re-write or maybe just a spot of extra care taken during filming. It comes off as just a bit of a rushed job. On the plus side, it means that the movie is only 79 minutes long – very useful when the film I was planning to watch (Boyz n the Hood) was forgotten by the person at work who was going to lend it to me and I only had one evening to find a replacement. It was either this or Beverley Hills Cop II on E4!

What have I learnt about California?
The perceived difference between south and north California seems to be believed by Californians too. The north has Stanford, world famous writers and class; the south has stoners, surfers and slutty cheerleaders. It is nice to see Shaun realise this perception is somewhat false. It is inevitable that there is some difference, just because California is so large - larger than I probably realized. Shaun also wants to go to Stanford to get away from his family. This left me wondering why, in that case, he didn't choose to go somewhere further away. After checking on a map I worked out that Palo Alto is probably around 350 miles north of Orange County - it's equivalent to someone from Surrey going to uni in St Andrews.

Orange County is rolling in money. The high school looks like the Bilbao Guggenheim, the parking lot is full of customised SUVs, and they can seriously think of asking Britney Spears to give a speech there. People live in mansions with pools and views down towards the Pacific. More worryingly is the belief that applicants can get around the acceptance process for elite universities like Stanford should they be rejected. One wonders what would have happened if Shaun had not known someone whose grandfather was on the university board, or if his father had not been able to donate a new Admissions building. An ‘elite university’ that will accept a potential student just because his daddy is rich? If that is the way the American educational system is run then I feel quite concerned! Even more so because not a single character – even Ashley - seems to register that this is somehow unethical.

Can we go there?
As long as you only want to visit Southern California, yes. The entire movie was shot in the Los Angeles area. The film crew certainly never went up as far north as Palo Alto (between San Jose and San Francisco) where the real Stanford University is located. The version seen on screen is a mish-mash of the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) in Pasadena and (appropriately enough) L.A.’s University of Southern California. The Orange County scenes are theoretically set in San Clemente (“the surfing media capital of the world”), though it does not seem to have been particularly filmed there either. The beach is north-west of L.A. in Malibu.‘Vista del Mar’ High School is actually a real school, but the Diamond Ranch High School, east of L.A. in Pomona. The Brumder residence is in West Hills, an area of the San Fernando Valley that was purchased by real estate speculators in the early twentieth century to expand the area of Los Angeles. Very Chinatown.

Overall Rating: 2/5

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