Monday, May 9, 2011

Animal House (1978)


          The outrageous comedy Animal House belongs on any list of ’70s movies that changed the cinematic landscape (for better or worse), because ever since Animal House set the template, raunchy comedies about kids getting into mischief have been a staple at multiplexes. As is often the case, however, few imitators can match the energy of the original—Animal House is the Wagnerian opera of frat-house flicks, featuring debauchery and destruction on epic levels. Whether the picture is actually amusing depends on the viewer’s taste, of course, since the barrage of nocturnal panty raids and toga-party bacchanalias is inherently vulgar. Nonetheless, Animal House has a certain kind of lowbrow integrity because it never apologizes for its excesses; quite to the contrary, the picture proudly celebrates cretins and lowlifes.
          To make this anarchistic material palatable, the filmmakers smartly position the boys of Delta House as relatable underdogs, then stack the deck by making the straights who oppose the Deltas such insufferable pricks and prigs that there’s no choice but to root for the Deltas. Describing the plot of is futile, since the story isn’t the point, but the basics are that Delta House is the worst frat on campus, so the Deltas have to clean up their collective act or face expulsion by their mortal enemy, Dean Wormer (John Vernon). Far more important than the story are the raucous exploits of Boon (Peter Riegert), Bluto (John Belushi), D-Day (Bruce McGill), Flounder (Stephen Furst), Otter (Tim Matheson), Pinto (Tom Hulce), and the rest of the Deltas. Whether they’re jamming to “Shout,” destroying the school cafeteria in a gigantic food fight, or sneaking into sororities to stare at naked coeds, these misfits live for babes, booze, and brawls. Accordingly, the picture’s humor exists on a plane of adolescent wish fulfillment, so watching Animal House is like entering the testosterone-fueled dreams of a teenaged boy who thinks he’s invincible and that life should be a nonstop party.
          Sure, the picture has a few nods to social consciousness reflecting its setting in the early ’60s—mostly via Donald Sutherland’s smallish role as a with-it professor who espouses counterculture ideals in between nailing coeds—but the heart of Animal House lies in characters like Bluto, the slob who horrifies a “nice” girl by stuffing his face with mashed potatoes and then smashing his cheeks to spit out his food before announcing, “I’m a zit!” There’s no denying the crude power of this movie, which was made with great enthusiasm—and, thanks to director John Landis, considerable craftsmanship. Furthermore, the cast is uniformly good. Belushi’s take-no-prisoners performance transformed him from a TV star into a box-office attraction, Hulce is sweetly hapless, Matheson is cool and slick, McGill is a force of nature, Vernon nails his campy villain role, and a young Kevin Bacon is terrific as one of the clueless straights fighting the Deltas. Still, despite all the talent on display, it’s difficult to make a case that Animal House is about anything except glorifying bad behavior. Enjoyable though Animal House may be, it’s not particularly admirable.

Animal House: GROOVY

3 comments:

Raider Duck said...

Fun (and true) story from the DVD commentary: Sutherland (whose participation was critical to getting the movie green-lit) was offered either a percentage of the gross or $57,000 cash for his three days on the set. Thinking nobody would go see the film, he opted for the cash, a move which (by his own admission) cost him millions. Oops.

jf said...

I recently saw this again, and I shudder to think how much of an impact this film's attitude had on my then-teenage self. Utterly nihilistic worldview, which was somehow cooler than cool to me at the time. (I still enjoy looking at my old copies of the Lampoon...there was a lot more to the early Lampoon than shows up in this movie.)

Wish my teenage self had been given something like ... "Rushmore" to chew on. Some similarities with "Animal House": Max's oafish behavior is first seen as funny, then turns dark and unsettling, but then he finally gets a glimpse of what it might be like to outgrow it.

Murph said...

Small correction: "Animal House" is not set in the "late-60s," but more precisely, 1962 to 1963 (which explains why a giant "JFK" bust is the centrepiece of Omega House's parade float for the movie's climax).

Here's a (grisly) fun fact: As originally scripted -- and originally shot -- the Delta's hurl a beer keg at the Omega/JFK parade float during their last gasp rampage. As filmed, the beer keg smashes into "JFK's" paper mache head, creating a gaping hole in the sculpture's right temple -- a rupture that matches the gunshot wound that the real JFK will (eventually) receive a few weeks later in Dallas (based on the film's timeline).

John Landis decided to cut the sequence, because a) It wasn't funny, and; b) Landis, Belushi and Harold Ramis were great admirers of the late President Kennedy, and (according to Landis), "we had to draw the line somewhere." (Quote-Unquote -- John Landis, Melbourne International Festival, 2014).