Published February 24, 2003
Critics ought to think positively wherever possible, and so I will praise what seems to me by far the best joke in the otherwise dismally awful Old School by Todd Phillips. It tells tells the story of the regression to adolescence of some 30ish men in a midwestern university town who start a fraternity, inviting a mixture of students who would not be wanted by real fraternities and other, older men like themselves eager to escape the ties of wives and families to party like college boys. In doing so, they incur the wrath of the dean, played by Jeremy Piven, who at one point kicks the students among them out of the university.
“My life is over,” moans one of the ejected, “and I’m going to end up working at Red Lobster.”
“You already work at Red Lobster,” says another, possibly named Richard.
“That’s part time, Dick.”
Oh how one wishes that this hint of social paradox and of the terrible racket that higher education has become in America — as, increasingly, in other post-industrial nations — had been followed up! While Hollywood continues to grind out such brainless trash as Old School, people in the rest of the country are running themselves into ruinous debt and working at menial jobs, all so that they can obtain a credential having virtually nothing to do with real educational attainment but guaranteeing the right (as it seems) to sit in an office cubicle performing equally mindless tasks but with greater social cachet attached to them. This is what is sometimes known as “the American dream,” although those who have achieved it continue to dream, if the popularity of movies like Old School is anything to go by, of returning to those carefree college days when they used to drink themselves senseless every weekend.
Isn’t there also a certain comic or satirical potential in the fact that there is hardly any difference between those who come to the university avowedly to party and those who come ostensibly to learn? “All the fun of college, none of the education,” proclaims the film’s poster tag-line, which amounts to a nudge and a wink to those who already know how far the proportions of fun and education in “college” have tipped in favor of the former. But Old School has no underlying seriousness to it, either of social commentary or of satire, and only wants to milk the old Animal House cow one more time.
Mr Piven’s dean is represented as being a contemporary of the older frat boys, and one who was mixed up in their high-jinks back in their first adolescence. That he has risen so quickly to a deanship suggests talent, diligence and hard work. Now, like Prince Hal turning away from Falstaff and his cronies in Eastcheap, he wants to know no more of them, but here it is Falstaff and the lords of misrule who become king and the prince who must ignominiously sneak off at the end, improbably disgraced by his efforts to impose a modicum of sobriety and educational standards on his charges.
It’s all right, though. He’s only a plot convenience. The point of the movie is to run past us a succession of “outrageous” and drunken pranks that, you would think, even teenagers would find tedious by now. That they are performed by grown men — mainly Will Ferrell of “Saturday Night Live” with Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughn as a double-team of straight men — doesn’t make them any funnier. It makes them more pathetic. The movie is, among other things, an implicit acknowledgment that growing up, at least among the prime, teenage audience for movies, is now considered optional. But pointing out that it is, nevertheless, not would perhaps be considered to be too much like education.