Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Animal House (1978)

"Is this really what you're gonna do for the rest of your life?”
"What do you mean?"
"I mean hanging around with a bunch of animals getting drunk every weekend."
"No! After I graduate, I'm gonna get drunk every night."

The Story:

School is about to be back in session at Faber College for the 1962 school year, and two hapless freshmen (Tom Hulce and Stephen Furst) hope to gain entry into the prestigious Omega fraternity. That doesn’t quite work out, so they’re forced to settle for Delta House, a dilapidated old shack that houses the campus goofballs and ne’er-do-wells. Perpetually on probation and at odds with both the stuffy Omegas and finicky Dean Wormer (John Vernon), the group is placed on “Double Secret Probation” for the upcoming semester. This doesn’t prevent them from engaging in a debaucherous term filled with drinking, road trips, and, of course, toga parties!

The Review:

National Lampoon’s first cinematic outing laid the groundwork for nearly all raucous college comedies that followed; its plot and its demented, gross-out spirit have been recycled endlessly during the past 30 years. However, few have managed to surpass it, and Animal House still remains the best film to carry the National Lampoons banner. With a tongue planted firmly in its silly and jovial cheek, it offers plenty of unabashed silliness and sophomoric hijinx. It has nary a serious bone in its body, but it’s so good-natured in its thumb-nosing disdain for authority that you can’t help but smile at it. In some ways, Animal House works more as a sum of its parts--there are certainly parts that will elicit hearty belly laughs, but it mostly leaves you with that smile that’s difficult to shake once it’s all unfolded.

Animal House also manages to be one of the best-made low-brow films of all time due to Landis’s direction and a spectacular cast. This is also a rare film where the bawdy antics are actually outshined by the characters performing them. Belushi was the only real “name” at the time, and his turn as John “Bluto” Blutarski shot him off towards his all too brief superstardom. A seven year senior boasting a robust 0.0 GPA, Bluto is the enduring character and legacy of Animal House; resembling a disheveled cherub with a penchant for destroying everything in his path, the character is totally Belushi, a chaotic buy endearing whirlwind of destruction that shows off the late actor’s gift for physical comedy. He actually isn’t the film’s lead; in fact, there’s really not much of a lead at all in this ensemble effort. Tim Matheson emerges as the de facto leader, “Otter,” a suave ladies man out to sex every broad in town, including the Dean’s oblivious wife.

The rest of Delta house is comprised of a bunch of guys you‘d like to hang with: Hulce and Furst are a couple of wide-eyed freshmen looking to forward to the wonders of loose college girls, while Peter Riegert is Matheson’s partner-in-crime who has to balance his hedonistic lifestyle with the demands of his girlfriend (Karen Allen). Allen is a spunky, down-to-earth compliment to the boy’s club, and she’s joined by a couple of other tenacious gals (Mary Louise Weller and Martha Smith) to round out the female component (in more ways than one). Opposing the Deltas are a perfectly cast group of smarmy jerks as the Omegas; Kevin Bacon is even among them, he of “thank you sir, may I have another?” fame (one of many quotable lines from an endlessly quotable flick). Other oddballs crop up across the campus, including Donald Sutherland as a trippy, pot-smoking English teacher who dislikes John Milton as much as his disinterested students. Sutherland is a criminally underrated comedic talent who brings a rare understated performance to offset all of madness.

And there is quite a bit of madness--don’t let me sell the antics of Animal House short. The characters are indeed great, but they also engage in some memorable pranks and gags. No one is safe from the chaotic purview of Delta House: men, women, even live animals (that don’t stay live for long). Though it helped to popularize the toga party phenomenon, the film’s famous toga party actually ranks below some more notable sequences, such as an ill-fated road trip to rope in some unsuspecting girls at the local female college. The quest ends in a bar where the all-white cast sticks out like a sore thumb among the African-American crowd. More bawdiness awaits, and it’s arguable that the potency of the film’s madcap larks are only diluted because so many other films took its conceits and got raunchier over the years. That doesn’t really matter, though, because Animal House straddles a fine line of being extremely low class without being overtly stupid, which is where so many of its imitators went wrong.

Sure, the film is a bit episodic and lacks a sustained narrative, but it’s directed with such reckless energy by Landis that it’s a non-issue. Filled with the brim with slap-dash zaniness, the film culminates in a riotous final scene where Landis just lets loose and embraces the goofball aesthetic. In a scene that represents the Delta’s ultimate revolt against authority, one can almost sense Landis expressing his own cheeky rebellion by throwing in everything and the kitchen sink here. At the end of it all, though, the characters manage to shine; when we learn of their future fates, we’re keenly invested, which is a testament to what this film has crafted. Despite its raunchiness and goofiness, there’s a certain charm to Animal House; I daresay it’s even a little innocent, what with its 1962 setting (right on the precipice of the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam) that reminds us of a simpler time. Golden age fallacy? Perhaps--there’s no doubt that even the early 60s were tumultuous, but Animal House is situated in a world where any problem can be solved with a little diabolical ingenuity cooked up by some of your best buds. And that's why it works. Toga! (Brett G.)

Tale of the Tape:

9 out of a possible 10 inches.

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