erik lundegaard

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The Frat Pack Crashes Hollywood

So where was Owen Wilson while the other guys were filming “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”? Will Ferrell starred and Jack Black, Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller and brother Luke Wilson all managed cameos. But no Owen. Maybe it was an in-joke. Owen’s ultimate slacker role. So laid-back he didn’t photograph.

They are called “The Frat Pack” now because, like Sinatra’s original “Rat Pack,” they are friends who keep popping up in each other’s movies, and because nothing makes a journalistic career like noticing a trend or coining a term.

Entertainment Weekly was the first to give it a go, offering us “The Slacker Pack” in spring 2004. Nice, but at the time Stiller was appearing in six movies, hardly a slacker, so USA Today countered with “The Frat Pack,” which seems to have stuck. It beats “Slacker” in the Google sweepstakes 3,370 to 233 (as of this writing), and it reminds us of “Old School,” the boys’ semi-breakout hit in which a group of middle-aged men create a fraternity to recall the wild days of their youth. Fun is in the past, and in nostalgia.

Stiller and company have done something similar; they’ve created a fraternity to recall the wild movies of their youth: “Stripes” and “Animal House” and, unfortunately, “Neighbors” and “Dr. Detroit.” Fun may be in the past, but so is not-fun. See “Envy.”

Intense vs. laid-back

Each frat boy has his own persona. Luke Wilson is the handsome, lovelorn everyman, while brother Owen is the laid-back lothario who lucks into things. He succeeds without trying and this plays nicely against Stiller, who tries furiously but fails. Ferrell is the doughy man-child, and never funnier than when expressing honest emotions as either child (“Elf”) or man (“Anchorman”). Vince Vaughn plays the pal who needles the protagonist into action. Jack Black is pure anarchic intensity.

In fact, you could split up the fraternity along these lines:

Problems arise when a picture stars two guys from the same category. Maybe if Owen Wilson had played the dreamy neighbor who lucked into a fortune in “Envy” the movie would’ve worked; instead you had Black and Stiller, two intense performers with nothing to offset them. “Dodgeball” did phenomenal business — $114 million domestically — but Vaughn felt wrong as the Bill Murray-esque, schlubby good guy. Playing laid-back, his considerable charm disappeared. Apparently if his fingers aren’t snapping he barely registers. See his cameo in “Anchorman.”

With the exception of Wes Anderson’s offerings, their movies together are formulaic. The dumb guy who learns just enough to get the girl in the end (“Zoolander”; “Anchorman”). The buddy who creates havoc in the life of the normal guy (“The Cable Guy”; “Orange County”; “Old School”). Rivals must be overcome, lessons learned. When in doubt, add an inane contest. Thus “Zoolander’s” walk-off between male models, and thus “Starsky & Hutch’s” disco dance-off, and thus “Anchorman’s” battle royale between competing news teams. And thus all of “Dodgeball.”

Sometimes the joke seems to be just how absurd within the formula the movie can become. The good guy’s gym is going to be saved from the corporate conglomerate...by a dodgeball game? The misfits include someone...who thinks he’s a pirate? The protagonist needs inspiration...and Lance Armstrong walks by? We know the formulas so well we get the jokes before they arrive. This should allow for endless variations but the same jokes keep popping up: The bionic soundtrack during action scenes (“Zoolander”; “Anchorman”); the 1970s AM hit song “Afternoon Delight” (“Starsky & Hutch”; “Anchorman”). It’s the nostalgia theme again. “It’s funny because we thought it was cool back then and now we know it’s not...so it’s funny.” Yes, and sometimes not-funny.

Stiller vs. Hoffman

Still, gives them their props. Ferrell is the most natural comedian to hit movies since Bill Murray, and Owen Wilson ain’t bad either (although he’s starting to annoy), and Stiller, while not as naturally funny, is talented in the way that Dan Aykroyd or Dana Carvey are talented. Witness his spookily accurate rendition of David Starsky. His trouble: he can be so uncompromising his characters come off as one-note. You wish for a little play in the line, a glimmer of something else. Even in his more prestigious pictures — “Permanent Midnight,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” — his characters don’t suggest variation. And put him beside a real actor? Gene Hackman or Dustin Hoffman? Forget it.

Both “Meet the Parents” and “Meet the Fockers” did insane business ($330 million and $513 million worldwide), but “Parents” suffered because there was nothing to offset De Niro’s character. Stiller responded with polite dishonesty — the attempt to fit in — the emasculated Jew among the WASPs — and polite dishonesty is rarely interesting.

“Fockers,” though, had Hoffman, who responded with polite honesty. “We’re honest people!” he shouts at Stiller, but the son doesn’t get it. When, during their first dinner together, De Niro attempts to emasculate his host by saying, “[Your wife] is the primary breadwinner and you didn’t have a job,” the look of polite hurt on Hoffman’s face, and the depths it suggests, took the movie to a new level. In contrast, even when the son is injected with truth serum he doesn’t become honest like his father. He becomes a jerk — a Hollywood producer-type — which is an odd choice for a nurse from Chicago but a good choice for the son of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. Which is why it’s a bad choice.

Getting better

I wanted to wrap this piece up with the thought that maybe these guys are like the cut-ups in class that the teacher has to separate before they can do real work. That Sinatra was at his best away from the Rat Pack and maybe the Frat Packers are better away from each other, too. Think Vince Vaughn in “Swingers” and Will Ferrell in “Elf” and Jack Black in “High Fidelity” and Owen Wilson in the Jackie Chan movies and Ben Stiller in “There’s Something About Mary” and the underrated “Mystery Men.” They ruled in these movies. “Zoolander”? Not so much.

Then I saw “Wedding Crashers” and it hit me: They’re actually getting better. Their only stinker in the last four years has been “Envy.” Through “Old School” and “Starsky & Hutch” and “Dodgeball” and “Anchorman,” they keep delivering, but “Crashers” may be the best of the bunch. It’s an original concept (by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher) and doesn’t rely on nostalgia or bionic soundtracks. Sure, it loses itself in the last half hour, but for the first 90 minutes it’s raunchy and funny, with Owen Wilson initially playing to type (laid-back lothario) before morphing into brother Luke (lovelorn and handsome). And Vince Vaughn? Ain’t laid-back no more. He’s at his finger-snappin’, cherry-poppin’, fast-talkin’ best. Welcome back, baby. Never leave.

—Critic Erik Lundegaard feels the only way to bag a classy lady is to give her two tickets to the gun show...and see if she likes the goods. This piece was originally published 7/14/05 on MSNBC.com.