Saturday, December 11, 2004

DB Weekend Movie Fest: The Best Campus Comedies of All Time III

The Top Five Campus Comedies of All Time

Road Trip (2000)
Successfully combining two of my favorite movie conventions, the Campus Comedy and the Road Trip, this movie manages to balance a rollicking adventure, laugh-out-loud slapstick, and surprisingly strong characters into a hell of a strange trip. Of course, there are some groan-worthy moments (the skinny white dork who learns the ways of hip hop and love from the obese black momma comes particularly to mind) but that's somewhat inherent to almost all capital-c Comedies these days. In fact, I find it perfectly possible that the almost-perfect There's Something About Mary may have inadvertently set slapstick comedy back several decades, but that debate is for another day).

Tom Green and Seann William Scott, who both have the capacity to be great and awful, shine here in wacko side roles. Green is especially great as a zonked out tour guide for perspective freshman at Ithica College. He serves as the film's narrator, and is never funnier than when he swerves his narrative (and, therefore, the film) into horny-guy-T&A-territory. Scott, better known in most circles as Stifler from the American Pie franchise, makes his macho asshole shtick work as he tempers it with a modicum of humanity. However, it's Paulo Costanzo who steals the movie as a thoughtful stoner who's trying to Figure It All Out. These days, you can see him Thursdays on NBC as Herr Tribiani's nephew on Joey, the Friends spin-off.

The core story of the movie - dude travels from New York to Texas to try and prevent his girlfriend from watching a video of him making out with another girl -- isn't really the point. It's the diversions (a car trying to make a General Lee-like jump across a broken bridge ends in disaster), the believable reactions (Dad's gonna kill me!), and punchlines (Dude, we are sooo gonna get ass-raped out here...) that make this road trip worth the ride.

Animal House (1978)
The granddaddy of them all, Animal House is so famous now that almost every slapstick comedy involving youngsters since its release pays some level of homage to its signature themes: Scraping Together the Dough to Get the House Back, Will They Get Kicked Out of School?, the Parade/Event/Party Gone Horribly Awry, the Party to End All Parties, and, of course, Pranks, Pranks, and More Pranks (and High-Jinks).

In fact, Animal House has been so parodied and made reference to over the last quarter century that it does look a little bit dated and quaint by today's outrageous standards. But that also gives it a timeless charm, almost an innocence in its Frat Boys Will Be Boys essence, that could not be pulled off today.

Part of that innocence comes in the fact that while it was filmed in the late 70s, its setting is fifteen years earlier, which gives it a tension that is mostly missing in modern slapstick. When Flounder's car gets wrecked (a common Campus Comedy convention, if there ever was one) you really believe his misery - his Dad really is gonna kill him. When Dean Wormer talks about responsibility and discipline, he speaks with an authority of a Bygone Age. And when Bluto, performed with once-in-a-generation gonzo spirit by John Belushi, rallies his troops for one final it's-so-crazy-it-just-might-work raid upon the forces that beset them, it holds all the youth and force and enthusiasm of the Counter Culture.

It's a fun movie, a silly movie fraught with toga parties, heavy drinking, and staring through sorority girls' windows to try and catch an untoward sight. It's also a little long by today's standards, with down moments that can produce a surprising yawn upon repeat viewings. That doesn't steal its classic status away, however.

Old School (2003)
This is an exceptionally funny movie that has the power to win over those who generally scoff at the Campus Comedy (Want proof? Ask my wife). The comedic material is matched by a cast that is so seasoned and expert at pulling off deadpan riffs and over-the-top slapstick that you feel as though you're watching your buddies' exploits, and therefore laugh appropriately loudly.

Luke Wilson, who I thought was only fair before I saw him play the lead here, is a perfect straight man for the world of youthful debauchery that engulfs him. Old School does as good a job as I've ever seen at playing Campus Comedy off of the Real World. You see, as Wilson gets pulled into a zany scheme to start a fraternity (at his conveniently located to campus house) after his wife (a great performance in a small role by the always interesting Juliette Lewis) is caught sleeping with another, uh, couple, he attempts to keep up a semblance of his normal life. In lesser hands, a scene where the boss's high school aged daughter (Elisha Cuthbert) turns out to be the same co-ed that wound up in his bed the night before would be boring, but Wilson allows you to both wince with him and laugh at him. This tension works especially well with love interest Ellen Pompeo. You end up actually caring about whether they end up together or whether ongoing Antics will pummel the budding romance.

Vince Vaughn, a vastly underrated comic actor (see: Swingers, Made) is perfect as the wisecracking power-behind-the-throne. He makes Wilson a King on Campus, replete with parties featuring Snoop Dogg and fraternity disciples to worship him wherever he goes (including his office job). What's especially intriguing is that it's left up in the air whether he is interested in his friend's wellbeing or if everything he does is part of an overall marketing plan for his electronics store empire.

Will Ferrell single-handedly created a new stereotype for the drunken man-boy with his portrayal of Frank the Tank. While this is by far Ferrell's best film (note to film makers: the more you ground Ferrell in reality, the funnier he becomes), it's movie magic when he's on screen with Vaughn and Wilson. The three have a great chemistry, and I hope we see more of them together in the future.

There are a number of strong performances in smaller roles, including the aforementioned Lewis and Cuthbert, as well as the great Jeremy Piven (more on him in a minute) as the uptight Dean, Craig Kilborn as the rival cheatin' boyfriend, and a bunch of wackos that make up the rest of the outcast fraternity.

Finally, Old School contains perhaps the funniest scene in the history of Campus Comedy: a raging, maniac van hunting down unwitting pledges to the screaming sounds of Metallica is, as the commercial says, priceless.

Revenge of the Nerds (1984)
In its own special way, this movie helps to represent the best of 80s comedy: a group of outsiders and misfits buck the system by doing things their own way. It appeals to anyone who was never part of the Cool Crowd growing up, and who reserved, in deep recesses of the psyche, dreams of revenge, triumph, redemption.

Robert Caradine and Anthony Edwards (who parlayed his nerd-dom into later ER success) are great as nerd buddies who head off to college together, believing their days of being ridiculed for wearing pocket protectors and digging computers and robots were behind them. Of course, they couldn't be more wrong, and that's where the fun begins.

Very soon, the lines of battle are drawn between Nerds and Jocks. The Nerd Squad, which includes such personages as the legendary Curtis Armstrong (also excellent in Better Off Dead, which might be the best comedy to come out of the 80s) as Booger and Timothy Busfield (who went on to much more serious success on Thirtysomething and The West Wing) as Poindexter. There are also a few other stock characters, such as the Black Gay Guy and the Little Kid.

The film is structured very well: the jocks continually pile humiliations upon the nerds, who are forced to organize and, eventually, get what's theirs and give what's coming to 'em. You actually end up caring when, during the movie's pivotal moment, Bernie Casey (who seems to show up in all of the best comedies of the era) shows up with the bad ass (and black) Lamda Lamda Lamda dudes to bolster the nerd's faltering efforts. It's also great to see Caradine win over the Chief Jock's girlfriend by disguising himself in his carnival costume (Darth Vader) and showing her that "all jocks think about is sports... all nerds think about is sex."

In the end, it's a feel good revenge movie and college sex romp (see: a panty raid with the latest in 80s technology leads to a legendary line involving our current President's last name) rolled into one. It enthralled me as a youngster growing up in the go-go Reagan 80s, and I still love it today.

And, to top it all off, it contains a classic montage replete with inspirational power chords in which the nerds fix up their dilapidated house. You get to see a robot painting a wall. I mean, what's funnier than that?

PCU (1994)
There are several reasons why PCU is the greatest Campus Comedy of all time. It's got a cast of great and emerging stars and it effectively digs at an emerging/disturbing world of political correctness in which it's off limits to poke fun of anyone or anything. But most of all, it's a consistently funny and entertaining film.

You get to a very subjective point at this stage of a countdown, and it really starts to come down to pure kick-assedness. And this one does just that.

Jeremy Piven is just about perfect as Droz, the Party Maestro with Attitude. He makes asides about his "fifth sophomore year," sells term papers out of his dorm room (located in The Pit, the center of activities for most of the film) -- though he scoffs at those who come looking for help in such areas as Sanskrit (a five-thousand year old dead language?) and Phys Ed (okay, that's it, you're out of my room, get out). Through a practical joke beset upon him by Alex Desert (the This place is dead anyway guy from Swingers) he's paired for a weekend by perspective freshman and disaster prone Chris Young.

The match allows Piven to show Young and the audience an extraordinary satire of modern collegiate life: diversity pushed to such extremes that no one outside their own niche talks to each other anymore coupled with a stifling of setting one's feet or mouth outside those strict boundaries.

We meet David Spade, in one of his best roles, as Rand McPherson, head of the fraternity that sets heritage dating back to The Mayflower as one of its terms of entry. There's also Moonbeam, a girl so intent upon protest that she carries a spare placard and magic marker wherever she roams. Then there's the Womynists, who enjoy chanting such protest songs as Hey Hey Ho Ho This Penis Party's Got to Go, and the ultimate pot hazed Jerry Garcia-worshipping Ultimate Frisbee team.

Finally, there's The Pits' gang of wacky outsiders, including the great Jon Favreau in an early role as Gutter, the guy who wears the concert tee-shirt displaying the name of the band he's going to see live (PCU & DB Note: Don't be that guy) and someone named Pigman, who is forced to watch television throughout most of the film so that he can complete his thesis, which turns out to be the Cain-Hackman theory... which basically means that there's always a Michael Cain or Gene Hackman movie on. As it's explained to the "pre-frosh": You can major in GameBoy if you know how to bullshit.

The ostensible plot of the movie is coughing up enough cash to save The Pit (remember Animal House, anyone?), but the fun is in the goofy asides (like throwing raw meat upon a bunch of protesters in Cow and Those Murdering Cow garb), wacky pranks (locking the stiff administrator types in a room with Starlight Vocal Band cranked up to 11 on repeat mode), and the requisite montages (Womynists v. Pot Head Hippies in Ultimate Frisbee), and exciting musical numbers (Mudhoney covering Elvis Costello on "Pump It Up," and Parliament / Funkadelic showing up accidentally to save The Pit by performing "Stomp" and "Flashlight" to a party that brings everyone together for once, and the house down).

PCU is a great time, gets even better with repeat viewings, and is especially great after a party at two in the morning with a plate of deep fried pork and steaming cup of cappuccino in front of you.

In other words:

Yeah yeah yeah, I fucking met Tom.


The Sore Loser said...

Any movie becomes funny if you watch it over and over again with your friends, especially late at night, and repeat its lines ad nauseum. PCU is no exception. It's a fairly mediocre film but I'll concede that it's grown on me after many viewings. Also, I suspect that PCU has extreme nostalgic value for you. You remember yourself as the David Spade character getting drooled on by your freshman roommate.

Old School is an interesting case. It's got a great premise and the first of half of the movie is hysterical. But midway through it just falls apart. Not knowing where to take the movie, the director decides to make them compete, a la Revenge of the Nerds, in some kind of moronic tournament. I wish they had just stuck with the initial premise of middle aged men rediscovering their youth.

I hate to say this, but I don't think there have been any great campus comedies. I think Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, and Real Genius were all pretty good, and PCU and Old School were worth watching, but there's just no greatness out there. You think PCU is the best in the genre. How do you think it compares with the best movies out of the genre?

Eric Berlin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eric Berlin said...

Well, if you don't have a particular affection for the sub-genre of Campus Comedy, I'm afraid this list won't be up your alley.

I must admit you give off a waft of self-loathing with your comment:

"Any movie becomes funny if you watch it over and over again with your friends, especially late at night, and repeat its lines ad nauseum. PCU is no exception. It's a fairly mediocre film but I'll concede that it's grown on me after many viewings."

I can imagine you sitting there, grim faced, with some implement of self-flagellation set before you. Whenever a punchline comes... Whap! Whip across the hind-quarters! Just think... one more viewing and I'll be pure...

As for my freshman year of college... yes, I was a bit of a nerd (cut to senior year and my rugby playing days, quite the different story). However, my roommate, as you might recall, was far nerdier than I.

Anyway, the list is meant to highlight the best out of this particular sub-set of comedic films. How do they compare with other comedies? Not particularly well, quite frankly -- any of these five would have a hard time breaking my Top 10 of All Time Comedy. However, I happen to dig the campus comedy. If it ain't your bag, why don't you tell us which sub-brand works for you?

With or without the whips and chains is fine.

The Sore Loser said...

Self-loathing? Actually, I was aiming for derision, contempt, and a sprinkling of pity. But perhaps I was feeling particularly irked because Jama Lewis, by deciding to suit up on Sunday, may have cost me the season.

In any case, I'm not against the genre. I just don't think the genre has produced greatness. The problem is that all of the college movies are mired in the conventions established by Animal House -- a rowdy frat, an anal dean, nerds, the big party, etc. They're all going for cheap laughs by poking fun at easy targets (nerds, stoners, obnoxious frat boys, anal deans, and other caricatures). It's like a comedian going after frozen dinners.

Now, compare that with its sister genre -- the high school comedy. I think the best high school comedies are light years ahead of the college comedies, and that's because there's something real about the high school comedies. They don't seem as artificial. Look at two recent high school comedies -- The Election and Rushmore. I think both of these are excellent movies. And, unlike their college counterparts, they don't reduce people to categories or stereotypes just for some cheap laughs. They're both funny and real.

I think a great college comedy has yet to emerge, but it won't do so until someone is bold enough to trash all of the conventions. I'd love to see an honest college comedy. Maybe you should think about writing one.

Eric Berlin said...

Well, it's funny you should mention me for writing a campus comedy, my friend...

My novel-in-almost-completed-form, Possible Ends, centers around a collegiate rugby squad. It aims to be funny and real, so one hopes it would meet your highest standards. It's also a mystery/thriller for those who like to "see what happens next."

You make an excellent point regarding Rushmore and Election -- those are superior movies in every way: funny, entertaining, with a richness and depth that would be guzzled down via beer bong by a movie like Road Trip. I'd like to see a high school comedies list, actually... though I'm afraid you'd get into Porky's territory by #5 or so.

Overall, though, I think you're (slightly) missing the point of the Campus Comedies list. It's a list of which movie is the King of the frat-beer-T&A-pranks-high-jinks-deans vs. renegades genre. Top dog in the little kennel, if you will.

The Sore Loser said...

I see. So you're really dissecting a sub-genre within a sub-genre. Well then, let a thousand flowers bloom. Also, I think you're underestimating the strength of the high school comedy. Some to consider would be:
The Election, Rushmore, Say Anything, The Breakfast
Club, Fast Times at Ridgemond High, The Stoned Age (obscure but very funny), American Pie, 16 Candles, and maybe Grease. I'm sure there are many others to consider.

Eric Berlin said...

No -- I'm just dissecting a sub-genre (not a sub-sub), the Campus Comedy. Nothing more, nothing less. Red meat for the comedy-hungry, beer-swilling masses.

You're right, though -- there are some solid high school comedies out there (maybe you should do a list over at The Sorest Loser?)... but I find it interesting that you list Sixteen Candles and American Pie. Both are very good movies, but are they really different at all from a Revenge of the Nerds or Animal House? I can see your point re Rushmore and Election (no THE, just Election) and a few others, but Grease? Musical comedy ain't my bag... but it would not make a Top list of mine.

Anyway, I really want to see Sideways, the new movie by the director of (not The) Election and About Schmidt.

girlfiend said...

What about The Sure Thing? Or perhaps that would fall into the campus road trip sub-genre.

Eric Berlin said...

I only saw pieces of The Sure Thing years ago, recognized it as a Cusack film. I don't remember it as that interesting... therefore it never peeked its head over the radar for Campus Comedy or Road Trip consideration...

Maybe next time I'll ask for nominees. I'm thinking about doing Best 80s Comedy as the next Epic Category. However, I'll not have a final essay for grad school to procrastinate from (one hopes) to bang out a 2,000 worder. I'll get to it one day though.