College kids are very much focused on and engaged with the present. They know the hippest music that came out this month, they’re passionate as hell about whatever social issue was being talked about on the cable news channels this morning. Talk about something new, and a nineteen-year-old’s eyes light up. But talk about their dad’s favorite music or the social issues the world was going through twenty years ago, and they glaze over. So why can you go in any dorm in the country today and still find someone watching John Landis’s 1978 comedy Animal House? This film is an everlasting staple of college life. The Deer Hunter won Best Picture in 1978, but good luck walking into a college party and trying to get anybody to watch that. But if you tell them you’re popping in a copy of Animal House, they’d be totally cool with it.
To a college kid 1994 seems like ancient history. Yet, comparatively, the stuff that was made in 1994 feels much more contemporary than stuff from 1978. So why is it that if you asked a college kid what his favorite line from Animal House is he would probably have an answer, but if you asked him what his favorite line from the 1994 college comedy PCU is, he would look back at you with a blank stare (trust me, I manage college-aged employees at my day job, I do these tests)? PCU resembles current comedies much more than Animal House does in content and sensibility, it stars Jeremy Piven, who college kids are absolutely in love with right now because of Entourage, and yet my casual experiments in youth awareness have led me to believe that young people have never even heard of the thing (if you want to feel really bad about your age, I’ve also come across a girl who loves Justin Timberlake but doesn’t know what N’Sync is).
What do they have in common?
Not only are we looking at two college movies here, we’re looking at two movies where the filthiest, vilest, most hard-partying houses on campus are serving as our protagonists. These movies aren’t about the pretty people or the rich people, they’re about the fun people; the ones who just don’t give a hoot. The kids from Delta house and the kids from The Pit are subversive and anti-establishment. They have no respect for university authorities or the feelings of the hoity-toity kids in other organizations. They’re not at college to get ahead, they’re there to get some head. And both films have climactic moments that involve the protagonists disrupting community events after they’ve been shut down and shut out of the university system. Outsiders unite, these are the movies for you.
Why is Animal House overrated?
For being considered one of the classic, beloved comedies of the generation that came before mine, this movie sure doesn’t have very many jokes in it. There are lots of scenes of partying, there are some high energy physical stunts, a good amount of song and dance, but hardly any gags whatsoever. Everyone remembers that moment where John Belushi sprays mashed potatoes out of his mouth on the preppy kids and says that he’s a zit, but is that really all that funny? And does anybody remember the painfully lame, Benny Hill-esque foot chase that comes after it? Hip comedy this is not.
And speaking of Belushi, why is this considered a high watermark in his legendary but brief comedy career? He’s got two iconic moments, the zit moment and the guitar smashing, but other than that he spends most of the movie in the background, looking drunk, and not really doing anything. I mean, he made me laugh a couple times, like when he tries to console a crying Dorfman by very solemnly crushing a beer can on his head, or when he tries to give an inspirational speech but isn’t very good at it. I’m not sure that these are moments that register with the young people watching this one on repeat though. Was this a movie whose entire legend was built on a food fight and a smashed guitar?
When you break it down, Animal House is a really meandering, almost boring story. This thing could have used some focus and a trim. What was the main conflict here? We’re told over and over that the school hates the Delta house and wants them kicked off campus, but there’s never any concrete plan to make it happen. There’s never any specific goal that the kids have to meet to save themselves and win the day. We just watch people party and pull pranks for a while and then it’s announced at the end that everyone is expelled. A more clear sense of what the struggle was and what the consequences of everything we’d been watching were would have helped tremendously.
Why is PCU underpraised?
PCU lampoons the era when political correctness and pet causes lived in a struggle with grunge music and slacker culture for the hearts and minds of young people. It’s amazing at capturing the zeitgeist of the early 90s and taking you straight back to where you were in ’94. It’s a movie made about the 90s in the 90s, not the sort of nostalgia-laden, rose-colored glasses movies that get made about young people from the late 50s and early 60s. This movie is biting and mean, which always makes for great comedy. We get jokes about braindead hippies, jokes about self important gays, jokes about confrontational lesbians, jokes about militant blacks, jokes about pampered whites; no campus subculture of the time is safe from PCU’s critical eye, and the results are hilarious.
For a movie that doesn’t get much play anymore, this thing is pretty full of good comedic actors as well. Jeremy Piven is doing his fast talking wise ass routine, Jon Favreau shows up as a sloppy fat guy, Jessica Walter appears being just as bitchy and arrogant as she was on Arrested Development, and David Spade is funny in a feature film for maybe the first time ever. Here he’s cast as the villain of the piece, the cocky little shit head you want to strangle, and it’s awesome. Why didn’t anybody else ever get this? David Spade is very unlikable, cast him as the hero of your film and the thing is sunk, cast him as the villain and you’ve got gold.
There’s a standard and effective story structure going on here too. The Pit has racked up a huge damages bill because of all of the mischief they cause around campus and they’re going to lose their house if they don’t manage to raise a specific amount of money in a specific amount of time. It leads to them pooling their resources and trying to throw the biggest, most profitable campus party of all time. That’s well worn stuff, but it gets overused because it works. PCU doesn’t fall into the trap that many comedies do where it works for two-thirds of the film and then falls off a cliff when the story kicks in during the third act either. It tells a story but remembers to keep being funny all the way through. That’s how you make a successful comedy; keep the jokes coming and make sure you tell a simple story that keeps moving and never drags. Take into account that you also get a free Parliament Funkadelic concert during the big party scene and what more do you want?
Evening The Odds
It’s silly to me that both of these movies aren’t cult hits with young people. There is so much stuff in PCU that could be latched on to. One of the characters is doing his thesis on the Caine/Hackman theory, which states that any time you turn on a TV, no matter what time of day it is, you can find a movie on cable with either Michael Caine or Gene Hackman in it. That’s tons of fun for film nerds. Why haven’t I heard of anybody doing anything with this? Where are the Caine/Hackman 24 hour marathons at campus art house theaters, capped off with a midnight showing of PCU? Conversely, you can’t throw a stone on a campus without hitting a beefy dude wearing Belushi’s “College” sweater. Every third dorm room whose door you kick open will reveal an Animal House poster on the wall. It’s just not fair. Everybody knows that a movie isn’t really all that good until naked guy shows up. Where’s naked guy in Animal House?