Freshman Orientation (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For some movies, timing is everything, but that's one thing Freshman Orientation doesn't have going for it. After languishing in distribution limbo for an astounding three and one-half years (it premiered under the name Home of Phobia at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival), this film has finally arrived in theaters. Unfortunately, it follows in the wake of Superbad, another rude-and-crude teen movie that raises the bar for the genre. In 2004, Freshman Orientation might have been near the top of a lame pack; in 2007, it's behind the curve. The problem isn't the dramatic material which, for the most part, is nicely handled. However, the "outrageous" comedy is consistently unfunny and sometimes bordering on cringe-worthy.

Freshman Orientation starts out on shaky ground, packing the first 30 minutes with a significant percentage of the failed humor. The over-the-top jokes feel forced and are often more awkward than amusing. Fortunately, after the uncertain beginning, the film's gradual shift toward more subtle parody and light drama redeems the final hour. The central relationship is developed with care and the movie addresses the issue of intolerance on college campuses (and, by extension, in society as a whole) without resorting to too much preaching. (There is one overt sermon but the irreverent punch line makes it somewhat forgivable.)

When I was in college, if an unremarkable guy liked an A-list girl, he would ask her out, get shot down (most of the time), and move on. In the movies, this never happens. Instead, the unremarkable guy comes up with an elaborate ploy to get her attention. In this case, Clay Adams (Sam Huntington) thinks pretending to be gay might allow gorgeous blond Amanda (Kaitlin Doubleday) to develop an unthreatening friendship with him. Amanda seems all-too-willing to enter into this liaison, but she has an ulterior motive. Unbeknownst to Clay, Amanda's task to gain admittance to her sorority of choice is to seduce a gay man. So both of them enter the relationship under false pretenses and, as must be the case in circumstances like this, real feelings blossom. Meanwhile, Amanda's best friend, Jessica the Jew (Heather Matarazzo), must get together with a Muslim. And Clay's roommate, Matt (Mike Erwin), discovers he may be gay, which considerably complicates his relationship with the faux homosexual Clay.

Sam Huntington, who would go on to be Jimmy Olsen in Superman Returns, has all the qualities necessary to play the likeable but unremarkable Clay. Likewise, Kaitlin Doubleday has no trouble being the female lead. Forced together by plot complications, these two click. While their chemistry isn't When Harry Met Sally magical, it's strong enough to invest us in the future of these two as a couple. And it's in developing and evolving the Clay/Amanda pairing that Freshman Orientation excels. The film's brightest and darkest spots originate with the supporting cast. John Goodman is delightful as the owner of a gay bar (and provides some of the movie's few genuine laughs). Ditto for Marla Sokoloff as Marjorie, Clays' ex-high school girlfriend who has decided she's a lesbian. On the other hand, Heather Matarazzo is fingernails-on-a-chalkboard abrasive, although it's tough to say whether this is because of the accent, the writing, the acting, or a combination of the three. Equally unbearable is Rachel Dratch (the Saturday Night Live alum), although she's only in three or four short scenes.

The best college comedies evoke a sense of time and place even when they're not being serious about the situation. Watching the recent Art School Confidential, I flashed back vividly to my first weeks at a university. Nothing of the sort happens in Freshman Orientation, which is weak when it comes to verisimilitude. This might seem like a small thing, but when making a comedy about a reasonably universal experience (at least for its target audience), replicating that experience and getting the details right is a key to making the film work. By not succeeding at this, director Ryan Skiraki faces an uphill battle. It's to his credit that he overcomes the woeful first act to deliver something that, in the final analysis, is at least entertaining, but Freshman Orientation feels a bit like a missed opportunity. It's too bad the motion picture as a whole isn't as quirky and clever as its double-edged title.

Freshman Orientation (United States, 2004)

Director: Ryan Skiraki
Cast: Sam Huntington, Kaitlin Doubleday, Marla Sokoloff, Mike Erwin, Heather Matarazzo, Bryce Johnson, Jud Tylor, John Goodman
Screenplay: Ryan Skiraki
Cinematography: Amy Vincent
Music: tomandandy
U.S. Distributor: Regent Releasing
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2007-08-31
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1