Today, I’m going back to my series on the depictions of higher education on film with the 2002 comedy, Orange County.
The plot of Orange County is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A guidance counselor mistakenly sends out the wrong transcripts to Stanford University under the name of an over-achieving high schooler.
Orange County was written by Mike White, whose other screenplay credits include The Emoji Movie, Pitch Perfect 3, Brad’s Status, Nacho Libre, School of Rock, and previous “Ivy on Celluloid” feature, Dead Man On Campus.
The director for the film was Jake Kasdan, son of noted director, screenwriter, and producer Lawrence Kasdan. His other directorial works include Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Bad Teacher, Sex Tape, and the recent Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. numerous episodes of the television shows New Girl and Freaks and Geeks.
The cast of Orange County includes Colin Hanks (Fargo, Roswell), Jack Black (High Fidelity, School of Rock, Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny, King Kong), Schuyler Fisk (Snow Day, The Baby-Sitters Club), John Lithgow (Harry and the Hendersons, Raising Cain, Cliffhanger, Interstellar, Dexter), Lily Tomlin (The West Wing, Nashville, Short Cuts, I Heart Huckabees, Grace & Frankie, The Magic School Bus), Catherine O’Hara (Best In Show, Home Alone, Wyatt Earp, A Mighty Wind), Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters II), Kevin Kline (Wild Wild West, A Fish Called Wanda, The Big Chill), and Chevy Chase (Fletch, Community, Caddyshack, Vacation, Nothing But Trouble).
The cinematographer for Orange County was Greg Gardiner, who also shot such comedic films as Elf, Son of the Mask, Herbie: Fully Loaded, Men In Black II, and Marmaduke.
Likewise, the film’s editor has an extensive resume in comedy: Tara Timpone cut Slackers, Sex Tape, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Bad Teacher, and multiple episodes of the television shows Freaks & Geeks, The Grinder, and Fresh Off the Boat.
The musical score for Orange County was provided by Michael Andrews, who also did music for the movies Donnie Darko, The Big Sick, Dirty Grandpa, Sex Tape, The Heat, and Cyrus, as well as for the television shows Freaks & Geeks, Undeclared, and Friends From College.
Jack Black’s part as the stoned, ne’er-do-well older brother of the protagonist was written specifically for him – Black was friends and neighbors with the film’s screenwriter Mike White. The two have gone on to collaborate numerous times over the years.
One of the key points of criticism that was consistently thrown at Orange County at the time of its release was its questionable casting of so many children of Hollywood notables in key roles. For instance, one scathing review from Rita Kempley in The Washington Post read as follows:
If director Jake Kasdan hadn’t been the son of Lawrence, leading man Colin Hanks hadn’t been the son of Tom, and love interest Schuyler Fisk hadn’t been the daughter of Sissy Spacek, would there be an “Orange County”? Probably not.
“Orange County” is strictly a vanity vehicle with a mess of star babies on board. That would be just fine if it didn’t take us down the same old cul-de-sac. But it does, and with a vengeance.
In its lifetime theatrical run, Orange County took in just over $43.3 million on a production budget estimated to be at $18 million, making it a profitable venture if not a blockbuster. Critically, however, the reception was mixed: it currently holds a 6.2/10 user rating on IMDb, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 46% critics and 61% from audiences.
In his review in Variety, Todd McCarthy wrote:
[Kasdan] and White aim very low here and fail to take advantage of the abundant opportunities for social satire that its upper class and academic settings provide…White hasn’t attempted any cultural critique at all.
McCarthy has a really good point in his criticism here – Orange County, at the end of the day, doesn’t have anything to say, which is a big problem. Ultimately, it is a story of the plight of a person with immense privilege trying to get into college. The movie could have at least used self-criticism for comedy – pointing out how many breaks the protagonist has and gets to achieve his ends, none of which are earned. It could have even given us a foil – someone who got into Stanford, despite being poor, a woman, of a marginalized racial identity, etc. The humility and grounding of such an encounter could have served as a moment of maturation for the protagonist. Instead, we get a protagonist who displays immense entitlement, sexism, and elitism who is entirely incapable of self-reflection or empathy for those around him, who ultimately still gets everything he really wants.
To be frank, I absolutely loathe this movie. The protagonist is despicable and unlikable, to the point that I think this movie is an unintentional homage to American Psycho. The comedy, where it exists, isn’t terribly funny, despite a talented cast. Despite all of that, it is a movie about the college admissions process, and thus portrays quite a few aspects of higher education. So, lets get on to an analysis of higher ed in Orange County.
One of the first characters introduced in the film is an unqualified high school English teacher, who is shown to be unfamiliar with the works of Shakespeare. While this is definitely an exaggeration, it alludes to the popular perception that many high school teachers aren’t qualified or prepared to fill their positions.
Also in one of the high school sequences, there is a scenario shown in which a student is given exemption from specific coursework due to trauma/grief. I covered this pretty extensively in my write-up on Dead Man On Campus – basically, schools will make reasonable concessions for grief and trauma experienced by students, but not in the form of a pass or full exemption. Tests and assignments might have extended deadlines, or students can dis-enroll temporarily without penalty, but A’s for grieving don’t seem to actually happen.
At one point in the film, it is revealed that the protagonist scored a 1520 on his SAT, which led him to believe he was a shoo-in at Stanford. At the time of filming, the SAT was graded on a 1600 scale, which subsequently shifted in 2005 to 2400 scale, and then ultimately back to a 1600 scale in 2016. In any case, it is definitely a very good score given the time period. However, even a high SAT score is not a guarantee of admission to an institution like Stanford. Even if everything in the application had gone in accurately and according to plan, there was no guarantee of Stanford admission. The sense of entitlement the character expresses is utterly unjustified. Here are some contemporaneous Stanford University admissions statistics that I was able to dig up online:
12.4 percent of the applicants for fall 2002 were offered admission, compared with 12.7 percent for fall 2001 and 13.2 percent for fall 2000.
So, again, there’s definitely no guarantee of admission here. It is also worth noting that, following that stated trend, Stanford University is even more selective today. In 2017, only 4.73 percent of applicants were ultimately admitted.
In one scene John Lithgow complains that “all writers are poor,” as he puts down his son’s decision to want to become a writer. This sort of tension between parents and students over liberal arts majors is a very real thing – there is a popular impression that liberal arts degrees aren’t cost-effective, and don’t lead to careers. Basically, some parents see such pursuits in college as a waste of money. This gets at a very old debate as to the purpose of college – is the institution there simply to provide career training, or does it have a broader, more generalist purpose for students to become more rounded? It is a debate that isn’t likely to have an end any time soon, and it echoes through personal relationships and political policy divides alike.
One of the many schemes that is hatched to earn Shaun a back-door admission to Stanford University is through a private meeting with a member of the university’s board of trustees. Another such scheme involved Shaun’s father “buying” him admission by making a large donation to the University. One similar situation occurred in real life, when The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wound up in hot water in 2009. The Chicago Tribune revealed that “some students with subpar academic records [were] being admitted after interference from state lawmakers and university trustees.” After an investigation, it was found that there were “acts and omissions of University officials across all levels of leadership [that] substantially contributed to admissions-related abuses and irregularities,” after which, the Board of Trustees of the University were asked to resign, and the President of the University voluntarily did so. The truth is, such practices are typically kept mum, but admissions corruption has seemingly been accepted as a part of life at higher ed institutions – people with connections, money, and status have an advantage when it comes to admissions. In that sense, Orange County appears to be a pretty (depressingly) accurate portrayal of the admissions process. The Stanford University student newspaper has even noted as such:
..some [Stanford University] applicants may have less cause for concern due to unique privileges gained from special connections with [Stanford]. According to former University admissions officers and college admissions experts, the difference made for those applicants—including legacies, children of faculty and development cases—may, in some cases, bridge the gap between acceptance and rejection.
Yet another admissions scheme hatched by Shaun and company is to directly compel Stanford’s Dean of Admissions to personally review his application. From what I can tell, Admissions Deans do have a lot of power in the process of acceptance, but they are not a solo operation: Admissions offices require a good number of people to go through applications and make decisions. Even if Shaun made an excellent impression by invading the Dean’s personal abode in the middle of the night and drugging him, that’s not a guarantee of admission – if anything, that kind of back-channeling could be seen as an abuse of the Dean’s position. Then again, ethical concerns are already tossed out the window with this movie, so maybe that is totally in-bounds after all.
Early in the film, there is disturbing moment played for laughs. When Shaun discovers that his high school college counselor made an error in sending his test scores and transcripts to Stanford University, he violently attacks her. This got me curious – are there any documented cases of violence from rejected students towards high school counselors or college admissions officers?
I wasn’t able to find any cases like that, though there are a litany of articles out there that are aimed at helping rejected applicants deal with their feelings. Interestingly, I found one article from 2009 that covered the “cruelest and kindest rejection letters from colleges and universities,” which had the following to say about Stanford University in particular, which includes a quote from the Dean of Admissions:
Stanford University sends a steely “don’t call us” message embedded in its otherwise gentle rejection letter. In addition to asserting that “we are humbled by your talents and achievements” and assuring the applicant that he or she is “a fine student,” the letter says, “we are not able to consider appeals.”… It also discourages attempts to transfer later, an even more competitive process. One recipient, whose heart had long been set on Stanford, cried for hours, her mother says, after interpreting the letter as, “we never want to hear from you again so don’t bother.”
Stanford admissions dean Richard Shaw says the ban on appeals is necessary because other California universities allow appeals and families assume Stanford does too. Even after sending that firm message, Stanford, which has an admission rate of 7.6%, still gets about 200 attempted appeals. “We care deeply about the repercussions” of the letter, Mr. Shaw says, but “there’s no easy way to tell someone they didn’t make it.”
Going back to the impetus for the film – the error of sending the wrong student transcript to a college – I decided to look for some real examples of this sort of occurrence. From a Google search, there are plenty of forum posts out there that claim similar scenarios. Once such post on college confidential outlines a similar set of events as what happened in the movie (though they did apply and get accepted to a safety school, despite the error):
[The counselor] notified all the schools, but the admissions processes are already in motion, and I am afraid they will not consider me for scholarship money or even admission because of how screwed up my file is. I called all the schools, and while some them have replaced my incorrect transcripts with correct ones my guidance counselor sent, others are saying they will “figure out the error as they go.” I am really, really upset. This mistake has already made me receive a deferral from one of my top choices because of the credits that were missing.
In general, it sounds like most schools understand that clerical errors can and do happen, though some are less forgiving than others in such matters. Some institutions do have an appeals process to handle just such situations. However, as covered earlier, Stanford University is not one. No luck for Shaun there.
One of the most dramatic events in Orange County is the unintentional arson of the Stanford University admissions building (in real life, this appears to be Montag Hall). While I haven’t been able to find any records of an arson in Montag Hall, I did find some interesting points of history. In 1971, there was a firebombing at Tufts University of the office of a Dean, which was followed up by a bomb threat of the Admissions Office. In 2013, there was a fire set just outside of the doors of the admissions building at the College of Wooster. While neither of these instances were on the level of what was depicted in the film, this is as close as the official record seems to get.
Towards the end of the film, Shaun and company make the drive from Orange County to Stanford in what is said to be 3 hours. According to Google Maps, that is a roughly 400 mile, 7 hour drive. So, in order for the drive to take that long, the car would need to be travelling over twice the speed limit for the entire route with no traffic, which is far from realistic, particularly for I-5. Also, the vehicle they are in seems hardly able to handle 3 hours of 140+ mph driving.
At one point, Shaun is shown considering suicide due to his rejection from Stanford. As it, happens, I wrote at length about issues of suicide in higher education in my post on Dead Man On Campus. However, I didn’t look specifically at admissions rejections as a factor. As it so happens, I found a thread on this topic on College Confidential, but there were no verifiable instances of a suicide that directly attributed college rejection as the impetus. That is not to say that this has never happened, but I couldn’t find anything to verify this belief that seems to exist in the zeitgeist.
As I stated earlier, I really dislike this movie. However, there are some interesting higher ed issues that are brought up by the film, though they aren’t particularly criticized or illuminated by the story or the characters. Still, this isn’t a movie I recommend seeking out – if you are one of the people who remembers it fondly, I highly recommend not revisiting it.
Personally, I’m shocked Orange County wasn’t torn apart by critics more at the time – Shaun is maybe the most unintentionally unlikable character I have ever seen in a movie. Not only is he shown to be dismissively sexist and elitist through his PoV, but his entitlement to Stanford admission, constant condescension to his family and friends, and harassment/exploitation/abuse of anyone in his path makes him pretty much unforgivable. On top of that, he genuinely seems incapable of love or mourning throughout the events of the movie. At best, he has to be prompted into emulating these natural emotional processes. People, apparently, are merely means to his ends. Basically, Shaun is a monster, and represents just about everything people loathe about the institution of higher education.