In late May, in anticipation of the hit comedy Wedding Crashers, New Line Pictures sent along a surprising promotional item. Movie studios do this regularly to remind critics that they have a big new production in the pipeline and it s headed your way. Columbia, for instance, is probably the most creative: Last winter, they sent a rectangular box large enough to house a good-size refrigerator. Inside, though, was a broom just a broom, to promote the Bewitched movie.
For Wedding Crashers, which opened last weekend, New Line sent along a gray lunch sack. Written on its side was Party in a Bag, and inside were the following items: a bottle of eye drops, an inflatable balloon hat, breath spray, a Wedding Crashers shot glass, and a single condom.
Actually, totally appropriate.
Wedding Crashers stars Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, with an 11th-hour cameo from Will Ferrell, and all are charter members of the Frat Pack, the most hedonistic, ain t-it-cool-to-be-smart-but-act-dumb boy s club since those Ring-a-Ding-Ding Days of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and the Rat Pack. (Please note: The Frat Pack are in no way affiliated with the Brat Pack, an 80s phenomenon that consisted of Demi Moore, Andrew McCarthy, Mare Winningham, Anthony Michael Hall, Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, and offspring of Martin Sheen. May they rest in peace.)
Among them, the Frat Pack are responsible for a huge number of the big comedies in the past five years each starring one or two members, or some cross-pollination of the group. Of course, they don t call themselves the Frat Pack. That coinage is murky, but all roads lead to a USA Today article, which itself commented on Entertainment Weekly s use of Slacker Pack.
Membership is uncertain.
By most accounts, the Frat Pack consists of Vaughn, Ferrell, Wilson, straight man brother Luke, Ben Stiller, and Jack Black.
After that the inner-circle gets fuzzy.
What separates the Frat Pack from their legendary namesakes is: No. 1, they re more likely to celebrate with a beer than a martini; No. 2, they re deeply sincere about their insincerity; No. 3, they keep a foot in higher-brow material; No. 4, they re apologetic about their male bonding and excess (even as they flaunt it), and No. 5, these guys would rather work than party. They are the spirit of casual Friday. But the perception, and a great deal of their charm and attraction, comes from just the opposite: The carefully cultivated sensation that they re phoning it in all the time, that you re watching them hang out and goof off, that they re not afraid to look stupid. They make a comic like Adam Sandler seem like a fussbudget.
It s an act and it isn t.
Stiller aside whose self-consciousness is both a persona and sort of real each is shockingly comfortable before the camera, to the point, like Bill Murray before them, you re not certain if they re actually doing anything. It s this lack of heavy lifting that makes people laugh but leaves them uncertain what to think.
When people tell me how much they like their films, they always use the same description, one that reflects the contradictions the Frat Packers generate: Their humor is dumb humor, people say, fumbling for the right words. But it s sort of intelligent. Know what I mean?
People, meet your Frat Pack:
Stiller is the brains, the idea man, the Sinatra tightly coiled, nowhere near as smooth.
Their Dean Martin varies: Sometimes it s Vaughn, slovenly, sleazy, and tall. More often it s Wilson, a consummate charmer whose vibed-out drawl makes even the most rehearsed, cliche-riddled speech (like the one that ends Wedding Crashers) sound sweet and improvised his way is so good-natured, the right director could take advantage and chisel that fluff and buried intelligence into the next Cary Grant.
Or Peter Lawford.
Vaughn is the designated hitter, the only real actor in the bunch, with a mouth like a speedboat for lack of a clear role in the Pack, he s their Sammy Davis, Jr. (He s as sensitive as Wilson, but not as ingratiating; he s in danger of being typecast.)
Black is their Don Rickles, if only because both roughly share that Weeble-ish body type; he s also the least easy to cast, a Tasmanian Devil with two speeds: beady-eyed catatonic maniac, and beady-eyed hyper maniac.
Luke Wilson is easy: He s their Joey Bishop, the voice of reason, but easy to corrupt. And Ferrell at the moment, he s their Jerry Lewis, their impulsive id whose self-indulgence is funny in small doses, less funny thereafter. He needs to stretch or risk overdosing on the overzealous-loser-reaching-a-bit-out-of-his-range bit. Since women in their films are interchangeable, there s no Shirley MacLaine. (Not yet, but Wedding Crashers Rachel McAdams, fun-loving and tolerant instead of scolding, has a shot.)
As for the White House question: That is, would the Frat Pack become regular guests of the W presidency, the way Frank and Co. had an ongoing rapport with Kennedy? Vaughn, an acknowledged Republican, has already been a guest. Ferrell, who made his share of swipes (and anti-Bush campaign spots during the election last fall), probably shouldn t wait by the mailbox.
Not that it matters.
What you re seeing is a definition of what American comedy looks like, sounds like, and jokes about in the early 21st century.
And that s not hyperbole.
It s rare when a group of guys (and it s always men) become synonymous with comedy. In the past 20 years, individual comedians like Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey have created their own scenes; you went to see a Sandler comedy, an Eddie picture, a Carrey film, or you went to a comedy that shamelessly ripped off their styles. They had their personas but they didn t have superstar associates or share the limelight.
The Frat Pack has a motto:
Safety in numbers.
Comedians and their scenes have always tended to cluster together for inspiration, but never with as much isolation as the Frat Pack: Stiller and Owen Wilson appeared in Zoolander, Meet the Parents, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Starsky and Hutch; Ferrell had walk-ons in Zoolander and Starsky and Hutch. In Ferrell s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Stiller, Vaughn and Luke Wilson had cameos. Ferrell, Luke Wilson, and Vaughn appeared in Old School, arguably the defining Frat Pack film, while Stiller, Owen Wilson, and Black had small roles in The Cable Guy (which Stiller also directed and where a lot of these guys first met). Stiller and Vaughn appeared together in Dodgeball, while Vaughn and Owen Wilson partnered for Wedding Crashers, which features a Ferrell cameo.
Coming soon: The Wendell Baker Story, written, directed, and starring Luke Wilson, co-starring brother Owen, with yet another cameo from Ferrell, who also pokes his head into Black s upcoming Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny along with Stiller.
Good, because behind the camera is no less an example of cronyism: most of these guys are represented by the United Talent Agency and have the same managers, Eric Gold and Jimmy Miller of Mosaic Media. And they often work with the same writers and producers and directors, too: writer-director Adam McKay first met Ferrell on Saturday Night Live, where Ferrell was a cast member and McKay was head writer for four seasons. McKay wrote and directed Anchorman and the upcoming Talladega Nights, both starring Farrell and produced by Judd Apatow, who was the executive producer on the short-lived series The Ben Stiller Show for Fox.
Stiller, meanwhile, worked for a season (1989) as a writer on SNL, six years before Ferrell and McKaye joined. Farrell had his breakthrough hit, Elf, courtesy of director Jon Favreau, who made his name as the writer and co-star of Swingers (1996) which featured the debut of Vaughn.
As for the Wilson brothers, they both made their debuts in another indie breakthrough from 1996, Wes Anderson s Bottle Rocket. And if Owen Wilson s determined nonchalance and easygoing rapport with the audience at times make you wonder if the guy is too bored to even show up some days, here s a clue that there s more ambition to him than meets the eye: He co-wrote Anderson s Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, which starred both Wilsons and Stiller.
But Anderson and Favreau aside, one thing the Frat Pack share with the Rat Pack is that separately, they work with distinctive, original directors: Ferrell starred in Woody Allen s Melinda and Melinda, Black in Richard Linklater s School of Rock, Vaughn has the lead in the next film from I Heart Huckabees director David O. Russell.
Together, however, they opt for zero-reputation filmmakers who don t have the clout to foist discipline on their self-indulgences: David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), Todd Phillips (Old School, Starsky and Hutch), Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball).
You feel for these guys.
They step aside and allow a Ferrell or a Vaughn to gnaw the scenery until it fits their outline. They let their cameras roll on and on (and on). Think of Stiller preening through Dodgeball, repeating the same mannerisms ad nauseam. (When Stiller directed Zoolander, he allowed himself, naturally, the very same rope to hang himself.) Think of Ferrell singing his endless version of Dust in the Wind at the funeral in Old School. Or how Dobkin allows Vaughn to improvise those long, rambling come-ons in Wedding Crashers, which start strong and hilarious and peter out before the punch.
I like the Frat Pack, truly I do.
But too many of them are graduates of the Sketch Comedy School of Characterization: They find a few tics and gestures, or a goofy voice or a skintight body suit or whatever, and they hammer it into the ground. When Ferrell worked with Favreau on Elf, and Vaughn with Doug Liman on Swingers, both smart directors, they were allowed their room to mug and rant and give the audience what it wants.
But Liman and Favreau also reigned them in just enough to remind them that the character was real, even if their personas were not.
If all this has an element of deja vu, if the Frat Pack reminds you of something but you can t put your finger on it, here it is: These guys harken back to that period between the rise and fall of the Rat Pack and the Eddie-Sandler-Carrey years when a few comedy scenes converged, merged, and fed off each other.
They remind you of a time when American comedy was defined by the original cast of Saturday Night Live, Animal House, National Lampoon, Second City, and the writer-actor collaborations of Bill Murray and Harold Ramis. (Across the Atlantic, these older guys held a mutal-appreciation club with the Monty Python troupe; the Frat Pack, in comparison, are an American phenomenon; they are not international successes.)
Because Stiller and Co. came of age during the 1970s, that connection makes sense. Like Murray in Meatballs and Caddyshack, John Belushi in Animal House, and Murray and Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters, the Frat Pack movies are generally two-step productions.
Step one: Find a genre. Step two: Insert one or more of our gang. Where they differ is their choice of targets.
Murray and Co. satirized cronyism and tore down propriety and old boys institutions like the military and country clubs, which often stood for much more. Coming out of the Watergate era, their weapon was attitude pure attitude, and a contempt for entitlement and smugness. They were not self-analytical; it never did occur to them that attitude itself was a form of smugness. But the Blues Brothers aside, they rarely hid behind their characters, either.
They do share a sense of irony and cynicism: Vaughn is the new Murray, to the extent he doesn t believe a word he says. But the Frat Pack s targets are entirely inward. Vaughn wasn t trying to tear down the rival health club in Dodgeball. He wanted some self-respect.
He wanted it again in Old School, and so did Ferrell, who, even when he had a target as obvious and ripe as the media in his sights with Anchorman, turned it into a film about a man in need of personal redemption.
If you go see Wedding Crashers, pay attention to that romantic comedy finish. It would have been unheard of (or at least rushed) with Murray and Ramis.
But Vaughn and Owen Wilson luxuriate in it. As the Frat Pack is apt to, they remind us they re slumming that they re smarter than the material they ve taken and not as lowly as the character they played. This is why Stiller turns off so many people. And that s too bad, because as Ted Knight said in Caddyshack: The world needs ditch diggers, too.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6117.