Orange County

Jake Kasdan made his directorial debut an auspicious one (at age 23) in 1998 with Zero Effect, a private-eye film that proved to be more than the average detective yarn. The son of writer-director Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill) continues in a family vein by employing a few offspring of Hollywood acting stars in Orange County. Consistently funny and surprisingly inventive, it may be largely populated by teens but serves up a much more rewarding stew than the swill normally targeted at 13-24 year olds.

A typical "teen" movie usually revolves around standard high school hjinks–getting laid, avoiding (or succumbing to) a psycho killer–and then follows that solitary focus as inevitably as a cement mixer down a luge run, with large doses of T & A and scatological humor along the way. Orange County raises the ante; it starts with a basic "getting into college" premise but then refuses to be pigeonholed, adding themes–coming of age, rebelling against parents/authority, finding oneself–and coloring them with shadings not usually found in examples of the genre.

Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks, son of Tom) is a southern California high school senior, living for sun and surfing. When his best friend is killed trying to shoot the curl in a tsunami, Shaun’s life changes focus.He finds a paperback novel buried at the beach and, inspired by its deep insights into life, knows he must become… a writer. He applies to Stanford, where the book’s author teaches, thinking he’ll be a lock due to his high GPA and Class President status. But a foul-up by his school counselor causes Shaun’s application to be rejected. Aided by his girlfriend (Sissy Spacek’s daughter Schulyer Fisk) and his burnout older brother (Jack Black) he sets off on a quest to gain admittance to the shrine at Palo Alto. Shaun’s divorced and dysfunctional parents (John Lithgow and Catherine O’Hara) are neither understanding nor supportive.

This is very familiar teen flick setup material, and in the hands of lesser talents could easily have turned into oh, say – American Pie 3. There are a number of comedic set pieces: an elderly mute in a wheelchair, two stoners setting fire to an office building, important and veddy stuffy guests visiting a madcap household. But each time the film looks like it might careen off into Farrelly Brothers gross-out or Cheech and Chong druggie territory, Mike White’s witty script pops through a rabbit hole and takes the story in unexpected and rewarding directions. Kasdan’s direction shows a deft comedic touch, and consistently challenges the viewer to look outside the box – there’s almost always something going on out on the fringes of the screen, usually subtly hilarious. And like top salespeople, Kasdan and White also know when to quit selling, never holding a scene one beat longer than necessary.

The performances add to the fun. Hanks shows that he inherited at least part of his father’s flair, effectively playing an downtrodden Everyboy bemused by life’s quirks but never defeated by them. But the film’s strength lies in its rich set of supporting performances. Black contributes his characteristic energy and snide tangential commentary, here taken to almost helium-fueled heights, and O’Hara is particularly effective in her limited appearances, inspiring more laughs with a raised eyebrow or a weary slouch than Neil Simon has written into his last three films. Cameo roles are used like cayenne pepper throughout, dropping in when least expected and providing a quick kick but never overstaying their welcome. Even Chevy Chase manages to make an appearance without becoming annoying.

At first measure Orange County may look like teen spirit, but it displays maturity and intelligence enough to lift it far above most films usually aimed squarely at the three Bs: Babes, Beer, and Bongs. Arriving in a month normally known for its post-holiday doldrums, it’s a lively surprise.

– Bob Aulert