Perfect performances lift 'Orange County' to remarkable status

A Look Back at Film

by Jase Howell

There are certain comedies that can be defined as just straight silly and would be worthless dreck based on premise alone; but which in the right hands manage to surprise.

Among these diamonds in the rough is “Orange County,” a seemingly typical and unspectacular zany teen comedy that because of the talent behind it remains a great example of how witty dialogue and perfect performances can right a ship that seems to be going in the wrong direction from the get-go.

Sean Brumder (Colin Hanks) is a high school student who after reading a book has an epiphany and believes he has stumbled upon the meaning of life. The epiphany comes at an interesting timing because Sean is dealing with death of a surfing buddy. The meaning of life for him is becoming a writer, and the author who so inspired him happens to be a professor at Stanford University, so Sean gives up his surf dreams to pursue writing, something unheard of in a place like sunny and silicon Orange County.

While Sean manages to achieve nearly perfect grades in hopes of his acceptance to the Northern California school, something inevitably goes wrong. Of course, if nothing went wrong we wouldn’t have the set-up for the ensuing lunacy that is to become Sean’s life in the O.C. This is set off by a simple clerical error that switches Sean’s application for admission with that of a class bottom-dweller. His dream is over, but is it? After a near melt-down he talks with his surfer girlfriend, Ashley (Shuyler Fisk), and degenerate older brother and stoner, Lance (Jack Black), to devise ways to help correct the mistake. Sean may not be particularly concerned by their help or thoughts on his plans to leave the O.C., but we can see it early on; but, then again, most of the characters here seem fiercely devoted to Sean, his voice being the only sane one.

The first plan involving a couple of the elite Stanford alumni turns into one of the funniest scenes in any movie of the first decade of the 21st century. The elderly couple think they are coming over for a quiet tea to fix the mix-up, but are introduced to Sean and Ashley, as well as a manic and drugged briefwearing Jack Black and the lads’ three-sheets-to-the-wind mother (Catherine O’Hara) and her new husband — the latter a handicapped geriatric who she doesn’t even pretend to care for. The scene works as pure comedic insanity.

There are a whole lot of other gags that work incredibly well, especially after Sean, Ashley and Lance Stanford. The comedic execution of the many wacky antics including the drugging of administrators and setting fire to buildings is played perfectly by the cast. It doesn’t hurt to have cameos by Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, John Lithgow and Lilly Tomlin, all of whom add to the misguided adventures of Sean Brumder. This kind of talent coming off the bench raises the film above its somewhat bland set-up and makes it explode with laughs humor.

“Orange County” was at the time billed as a vehicle for Hanks (son of Tom) and Fisk (daughter of Sissy Spacek), and you can certainly see the traits both inherited from the famous parents; however, it is the screenplay by Mike White and the direction by Jake Kasden (son of Lawrence Kasden) that give this film some heart and meaning after the shenanigans are all over. A late scene with yet another cameo, this time by Kevin Kline as the author who Sean so greatly admires, is picture perfect. Walking alone on the Stanford campus twirling his umbrella and briefcase like the wise sage he is, Kline’s professor character ties everything together for our understanding. The simple truth is Stanford does not make one a great writer, and one need not travel somewhere to be great. Some of the best writers of all time created what they did by staying near to their roots.

The moral of this story may seem a bit trite, but is true, and this simple yet thoughtful analysis catapults “Orange County” from forgettable to remarkable. Well, that and Jack Black running around in his tighty-whiteys and throwing a fit. That’s pretty funny.