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A smart idiotic teen comedy

'Orange County' is fizzily funny

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Jake Kasdan's "Orange County" is one of the smartest idiotic teen comedies you'll ever see.

The dialogue is genuinely amusing. Besides, nowadays you're actually compelled to cut a movie slack because it takes 20 minutes before someone gets kicked between the legs, the person who's about to inadvertently drink a cup of urine spills it before imbibing, and the old man in the wheelchair doesn't roll down a hill and smash into a parked car until the beginning of the second act.

Kasdan has lined up an agreeable cast that features quick turns by such luminaries as John Lithgow, Garry Marshall, Lily Tomlin, Harold Ramis, Ben Stiller, and Kevin Kline, not to mention Chevy Chase. The lead actor, Colin Hanks -- yes, Tom's son -- is a lanky, goofy kid with a real sense of timing. But, most importantly, Jack Black gives one of the all-time great pill-head performances.

Black can really get on your nerves in the wrong role (see "Saving Silverman" -- or don't) but, as he showed in Alison MacLean's's much underrated "Jesus' Son," he's especially adroit at achieving the rattled, self-logical speed trip of an unrepentant druggy. You can practically smell the synapses burning while he carries on.

Jack Black stars in 'Orange County', the new comedy due in U.S. theaters this month (January 9)

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Hanks plays Shaun Brumder, a teen-age surfer from Orange County, California, who comes to the conclusion that he needs to get more out of his life. A funny prologue, in which one of Shaun's friends drowns while trying to tame the kind of wave that tipped over George Clooney's boat in "The Perfect Storm," clearly illustrates why he needs to re-examine his priorities.

Shaun's (still living) buddies are the usual beach-boy stoners. They're as dumb as they can possibly be, but they're not really mocked for it, and screenwriter Mike White manages to give them defining characteristics beyond simply saying "dude" all the time -- a neat trick for this kind of film. You might even want to applaud the fact that there aren't any poop jokes.

Shortly after the "tragedy," Shaun finds a book buried at the beach, a "Catcher in the Rye"-type novel written by a professor (later played by Kline) at Stanford University. The book so inspires Shaun, he decides to write a short story about his life in Orange County, send it in, and apply to the Stanford writing program. Alas, he doesn't count on a ditzy school guidance counselor (Tomlin, a welcome sight in any movie) sending somebody else's much less impressive transcript to the university.

So Stanford turns Shaun down flat, and the rest of the movie consists of him trying to get accepted at the last minute. His sweet girlfriend, Ashley (Schuyler Fisk, Sissy Spacek's daughter), does what she can to help, but his plans are thrown wildly off-course when his zonked-out, usually half-naked older brother, Lance (Black), drives them to Stanford to correct things.

To say the least, Lance's involvement hinders the process. Burning down the school admissions office during a drug-laced liaison with a lonely secretary (Jane Adams), or -- in a roundabout way -- supplying three hits of ecstasy to an unwitting university dean (Ramis) are not what you would call constructive activities.

Before they actually journey to Stanford, though, there's a hilarious scene that features Black bounding into the living room in only his skivvies, while Shaun, his drunken mother (Catherine O'Hara, another criminally under-employed performer), and Ashley try to convince a powerful Stanford alumnus (Marshall) to get Shaun accepted to the school.

Something about Black in his briefs reminds you of a huge, wild-eyed baby, the kind that might lurch out at you during a nightmare. His sudden flip-flops between mild coherence and screaming delusion are priceless. He seems like he's having electricity zapped through his body at inappropriate moments.

There's a badly integrated subplot concerning Shaun's divorced parents (Lithgow plays his dad), and some of the emotional binds between the characters rise up out of the muck for convenience, rather than depth.

But there are solid laughs to be found in this movie. Comic performances seldom get the respect they deserve, and Black's may go unrecognized, since it's in such a deliberately nitwitted picture. But he's really terrific -- part Bluto in "Animal House," part Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," and part Ozzy Osbourne on the never-ending tour.

So give "Orange County" a shot. Thirty minutes of first-rate humor is 30 more than you'd experience if you avoided the movie altogether.

The pot-smoking and pill-popping in "Orange County" is played strictly for laughs, but some parents may worry that it looks like too much fun. There's bad language and a bit of violence, including a laugh-out-loud moment when Black gets Hanks' attention by nailing him in the face with a crushed tin can...from about three feet away. Note that Shaun attends one of those movies-only high schools where every girl could conceivably pose for Playboy.




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