REVIEW: National Lampoon’s Animal House
My generation grew up on a different set of movies. Gross-out was a genre before we were born. Teenage sex comedies had been done for over a decade by 1990. The first teenage sex comedy I saw was likely Animal House, but that was before I had any idea what teenagers, sex or comedy were. That was likely before my first full sentence. My parents are kind of awesome like that.
The first teensexcom I remember seeing was American Pie. Nowadays, I’d be hard pressed to remember any details other than Jim’s dad was in A Mighty Wind and for some reason, a group of 20 year olds are pretending to be teenagers and virgins. Looking back on it, the intervening twenty years had done a lot to American modesty. The puking scene in Animal House uses a discretion shot to avoid showing us the gory details. It was a point of contention with the censors that they couldn’t show jizz in beer in American Pie. The times, they are a-changin’.
Yet, if I were to name one of those two movies as necessary viewing for cinephiles and general audiences alike, I’d go Animal House any time. You know you’re watching something special when animal death, racism and statutory rape are all played for laughs–not just played for laughs, but getting huge ones. What I remember of this last generation of horny teenager flicks feels calculated by a studio to sell tickets. Four guys, all different personalities, all getting laid, chicka chicka yeah, you know? The only honest movies I can find in this genre today are Superbad and Adventureland, and Adventureland forgot the comedy part of teen sex comedy.
Animal House and Superbad could almost be set in the same universe. Every character has the same painfully awkward truth to them, but at least in Animal House, the truth is toned down somewhat to give you caricatures of the guys you always wanted your college buds to be. One guy enters the pledge party on a motorcycle. Through the front door. Up the stairs. Then plays the William Tell Overture on his throat. You knew that guy, right? I’ve met a couple at one point or another; my mum’s assured me that there was at least one in her university gang.
The movie tells the story of drunken, debauched and all-round troublemaking fraternity Delta Tau Chi at Faber College. New pledges Pinto and Flounder spend most of the movie struggling to get used to the incessant goings on and partying at the frat house. Seasoned brothers Otter, Boon and Bluto, however, take up the spotlight for most of the movie, as we follow their wacky antics with food, girls, animals, drinking, black people and college life.
As always, there’s a Dean to be needlessly angry at the kids, played hilariously by John Vernon. A lot of Dean Bitterman roles are perpetually reduced to being booed and hissed by the audience. Animal House knows when it has comic gold, and wastes not a second of Vernon’s screentime. He winds up with the most quotable lines in the movie, putting down our heroes, villains and innocent bystanders alike. If you’ve seen it, say it with me now: “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” Dean Wormer, I salute, boo and hiss you.
John Belushi is Bluto. Those four words should be all that needs to be said in regards to his role. He was let loose onto a set with no responsibility for lines or big emotional moments on the upswing of his comic career. As such, he spends the entire movie doing wacky stuff while the plot happens around him. Food fight? Bluto started it. Voyeurism? Bluto likes. Drinking? It’s the only thing that calms him down.
I keep wanting to start my next paragraph with “The emotional center of this film is carried by…”–but it isn’t. There’s an emotional center, sure, but it’s the same one you always feel for underdog vs. rich kid movies. It was 1978. Punk was just becoming a huge thing, and so thumbing your nose to authority meant something back in the day. It felt good because it felt right because it was genuinely subversive. We cheer for the guys at the animal house because dammit, they’re the ones out to have a good time! Who needs haughty, sweatervest wearin’ mothers when we got the boys out to have real fun. Your mom never said drinking wasn’t real fun, but that’s likely because she was somewhere just like Delta Chi Tau. If your natural response to the threat of expulsion if you are caught drinking one more time is to throw a toga party with a local black band and enough booze to sink a ship and end a civil war, then dammit, you’re on our side.
I forget how the words were said, but a guy named Joe Girard said in his list of 1000 must see movies that comedies are afraid that they’ll screw up by not having enough plot or better developed characters. He said that this is not the case. Where comedies mess up, he said, is in not having enough jokes. I respectfully second that statement and move to have it codified as narrative law. Movies like Animal House know why you bought the ticket, rented the DVD or caught it on TV. You’re not here to learn a beautiful lesson about the nature of humanity as it relates to us all. You’re here to have a good time and laugh your ass off. You’re here to be constantly amused every step of the way. That’s what comedy’s for, god damn it. If I wanted to know why I’m a horrible person, I’d listen to Something for Everybody, okay?
Animal House is a dude’s movie. It’s a gross movie. It spits in the face of political correctness, but not in the face of common decency. It thumbs its nose to the attitude that comedy should be inoffensive or calculated. It says that the underdog may not always be right, but they’re always having a better time than you.
You know how it says all this? With jokes. FOUR STARS