If you were to describe the plot of Old School out of context to someone who hasn’t seen it, it doesn’t sound like one of the great comedies. In fact, it sounds kind of loathsome.
Three men in their 30s, two of whom have recently exited their marriages under bad circumstances, and a third who remains married with kids but seems to openly despise his wife, decide to start a college fraternity, getting into outrageous hijinks even though they’re about 15 years too old to be doing so.
Also, one of them appears to be a hardcore alcoholic, with a tendency to do things like run naked in public and disrupt a child’s birthday party. And one of them, the good guy of the three, has sex with a girl who’s still in high school.
Even despite all that, Old School remains very funny. Most of the gags still work, the performers are charismatic and fun, and their banter is hilarious. Sure, it’s an odd premise — there’s a reason, after all, that frats for adults aren’t a thing in real life — but still a very funny one.
It also introduced the “Earmuffs” gag to the world — one frequently used by dads the world over — while also bestowing a new nickname on most men with the first name Frank.
The three friends are Mitch (Luke Wilson), Bernard (Vince Vaughn), and Frank (Will Ferrell). As the film begins, Mitch finds out his wife (Juliette Lewis) has a secret life of gang bangs, while Frank is marrying a woman (Perrey Reeves) who appears intent on domesticating him. Bernard, the wealthy owner of a sporting goods empire, is married (to Leah Remini) and has kids, but is either super-unhappy or actively trying to create the impression that he is.
Mitch then moves into a house near his old college, and his friends decide to use the home as the headquarters for a new fraternity, one open to men of all ages. The kind of frat that gets a major recording artist like Snoop Dogg to appear and perform at one of their house parties.
So they essentially reenact Animal House, despite being grown men. Jeremy Piven plays the Dean Wormer role, with Sara Tanaka — Margaret Yang from Rushmore, who quit acting not long after to become a doctor — standing in for Neidermeyer and Marmalard.
As I remember Ross Douthat pointing out at the time, back when he was a blogger, it makes no sense for the stick-in-the-mud college dean (Piven) to be a Republican. Piven had appeared a decade earlier in PCU, another movie in which he was much too old to be in a college movie, although he clearly had more hair in the 2002 film than in 1993’s PCU. Also, Reeves, who played Ferrell’s wife in Old School, would play Piven’s wife on the many seasons of Entourage.
And of course, Old School ends up just like every other comedy like this from the ’90s and the aughts, including most directed by the Farrelly Brothers or Judd Apatow. It’s about men refusing to grow up, it milks comedy out of their not growing up, and then at the end, they grow up, mostly by embracing tradition and monogamy.
The film came from director Todd Phillips, who a few years earlier, ironically, with had made a probing documentary about fraternity life called Frat House. His first fiction feature was 2000’s Road Trip, another comedy that remains funny despite some iffy stuff; we went on to direct all three Hangover movies.
Old School grossed $87 million worldwide, which was decent but not astronomical; the Hangover films would do better than that. It got shut out of any awards, although it was inducted into the now-defunct Spike TV Guy Movie Hall of Fame.
Phillips, made headlines in 2019, while promoting his Joker film, by stating that the “woke culture” made comedy movies impossible.
“Go try to be funny nowadays… There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore— I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter.”
Then again, Joker made so much money that if Phillips decided right now that he wanted to make Old School 2 (Older School? Starring a trio of 55-year-olds?), there would probably be a bidding war over who got to release it.