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Los Angeles Times

'Orange County'

"Orange County" starts out deliriously funny but allows sentimentality to squeeze it to a pulp by the time it's over. It's the old Hollywood sellout, yet surely the people who laugh during its first half are prepared to go the distance with its deadpan take on the obtuse absurdities of human nature and upscale suburban life--especially one with such winning central performances by Colin Hanks and Schuyler Fisk.

Hanks' Shaun Brumder is at first one of the surfer dudes in a posh seaside Orange County community (though the film was actually shot in the San Fernando Valley). However, when he sees one of his pals killed trying to ride a humongous wave, the shocked and grieving Shaun discovers a book half-buried in the sand that transforms his life. The novel speaks to him the way "Catcher in the Rye" did to kids in the '50s. He becomes determined to (a) become a writer, using his own life experiences as source material; and (b) attend Stanford, where the novel's writer (Kevin Kline, unbilled) teaches. Since Shaun is so bright that he got good grades even when surfing was his main interest, it would seem he wouldn't have much difficulty attaining his dream. The trouble is he's surrounded by individuals steeped in self-absorbed indifference if not outright stupidity. First, there's Lily Tomlin's high school counselor, who has the attention span of a gnat and gets Shaun's transcript mixed up with that of a mediocre student.

Realizing how stunned Shaun is by his rejection from Stanford, Shaun's lovely, levelheaded girlfriend Ashley (Fisk) sets about blackmailing one of their classmates into having her grandfather (Garry Marshall), who holds an influential position in one of the university's key organizations, agree to meet Sean in order to solve his problem.

Unfortunately for Shaun, his extravagantly dysfunctional family can't get its act together for the duration of the meeting. His wacky mother (Catherine O'Hara), embittered by her husband (John Lithgow) dumping her for a twentysomething playgirl he met at his gym, gets drunk, and his brother Lance (Jack Black), a paunchy druggie, also reels out of control. Lance decides to make amends by driving Shaun and Ashley up to Stanford to plead his case in person to the dean of admissions (Harold Ramis).

So far so good, as screenwriter Mike White keeps piling on the wild and crazy antics--including an amusing cameo by White himself as an English teacher who thinks Claire Danes is the name most associated with "Romeo and Juliet"--and director Jake Kasdan keeps everything barreling along. However, when Shaun glimpses his hallowed novelist, "Orange County" starts to unravel swiftly, undercutting the satire and wicked observation that has come before. (How dispiriting it is to realize this is the same White who wrote the dazzlingly uncompromising "Chuck & Buck.")

In contrast to Thomas Wolfe's famous admonition, "You can't go home again," the moral of "Orange County" would seem to be that you shouldn't leave in the first place. In any event, this films stirs up nonsense just to make picayune points: You don't have to leave Orange County to be a writer; if you see people in the round their plusses and minuses most likely balance out. The equation, though, is too lopsided on the side of nihilism to be so easily squared away.

This suburban sub-"Candide" balderdash for teens has virtually no connection with the actual Orange County or Stanford. Its view of high school life among the privileged classes is generic, and the atmosphere is that of any ritzy Southern California coastal community between Santa Barbara and San Diego.

O'Hara and Black could give courses on comic expressiveness and timing. Hanks, the son of Tom, and Fisk, the daughter of Sissy Spacek and production designer Jack Fisk, are splendid arguments that talent can be inherited. But Kasdan could learn a few lessons about the perils of working with material that sells itself short from his father, esteemed writer-director-producer Lawrence Kasdan, who has spent a career pretty much avoiding that pitfall.

MPAA rating: PG-13, for drug content, language and sexuality. Times guidelines: The sexuality is pretty tame, language routine, but substance abuse is considerable.

'Orange County'

Colin Hanks...Shaun Brumder

Jack Black...Lance

Catherine O'Hara...Cindy

Schuyler Fisk...Ashley

John Lithgow...Budd Brumder

Harold Ramis...Don Durkett

Lily Tomlin...Guidance counselor

A Paramount Pictures presentation of an MTV Films/Scott Rudin production. Director Jake Kasdan. Screenplay Mike White. Producers Scott Rudin, Van Toffler, David Gale, Scott Aversano. Executive producers Herbert W. Gains, Adam Schroeder. Cinematographer Greg Gardiner. Editor Tara Timpone. Music Michael Andrews. Costumes Debra McGuire. Production designer Gary Frutkoff. Set decorator Chris Spellman. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.

In general release.

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