When put together, the words "January" and "teen comedy" are enough to strike fear in the most hardened of moviegoers. After all, it took those three words (and three more: She's All That) to launch Freddie Prinze Jr.'s reign of terror at the multiplex three years ago. So it is all the more surprising that Orange County is not only harmless, but actually quite funny and charming.
Perhaps that should not have been too surprising, considering the unusually higher caliber of talent at the helm: scribe Mike White, who wrote (and starred in) the 2000 indie hit Chuck & Buck and director Jake Kasdan, who made his debut with 1998's underrated Zero Effect. Orange County isn't nearly as offbeat as either of those films; in fact, the basic story could have easily led to a lesser film of its genre. Ambitious high school senior/aspiring writer Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks) wants nothing more than to attend Stanford in the fall--hence escaping his less than functional family and what he perceives to be a suffocating environment in surf-happy O.C. But thanks to a screw-up involving transcripts, this model student gets a most unexpected rejection from the university. With his supportivee girlfriend (Schuyler Fisk) in tow, Shaun goes up north to right the wrong--easier said than done, since driving them up is his far-from helpful, slobby slacker brother Lance (Jack Black).
The story being about a guy who desperately wants to escape his home, the ultimate destination of Orange County can only be one thing, and the film doesn't flout expectations in that regard. The journey there, however, is good fun, thanks to some cutting dialogue and memorably off-kilter characters and situations. Hanks more often than not recalls his superstar dad--and in a good way; he's effortlessly likable and hence carries the proceedings with little strain. That he and Fisk (another second-generation player like Hanks and Kasdan--she's Sissy Spacek's daughter) are not the prototypical glamourous types one generally sees in teen flicks adds a certain added air of reality. Not that the film is entirely realistic, what with the wacky Black offering some expectedly outrageous antics. A number of veteran actors also lend strong support; Catherine O'Hara and John Lithgow are especially noteworthy as Shaun and Lance's memorably high strung, divorced parents, and Harold Ramis and Lily Tomlin also make strong impressions in smaller parts. As with films typically released in January, Orange County's staying power is about nil once you leave the theatre, but you're certain to enjoy the time you spend watching it.
RATING: *** (out of *****)
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