Hey, Don’t Write Yourself Off Yet: ‘Orange County’ At 20

Orange County Movie Essay - 2002 Jake Kasdan Film

Certain movies don’t need to be over 90 minutes, and offbeat comedy Orange County is one of them. Clocking in at a zippy 82 total, the film, directed by Jake Kasdan from a script by The White Lotus creator Mike White, is self-contained and low stakes but frequently hilarious. The laughs are packed tight, the performances strong and naturalistic, particularly for this hyper-specific setting — both the time and place — and there’s a breeziness to everything that perfectly suits the premise. But, as with most White projects, Orange County has a deeper meaning, this one speaking directly to writers, both struggling and accomplished, in how it deftly handles the conflicted relationship we have with our hometowns and their denizens. At 20 years old, its clothes, technology and needle-drops may have aged, but White’s message about fighting less with yourself as a creative is just as impactful. 

It’s worth noting that Orange County released prior to The O.C. (which began airing the following year), Laguna Beach (which premiered on MTV in 2004) and The Real Housewives of Orange County (which kicked off the unstoppable reality franchise proper in 2006). Back in 2002, nobody outside of the high-end community itself really understood what the O.C. was about. Kasdan does a terrific job establishing who these people are and how much where they live dictates everything from their hobbies (surfing, partying) to their outlook on the rest of the world (essentially nonexistent). Early on, one of closest friends of protagonist Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks) perishes in a Point Break-esque surfing accident, after which a beachside funeral is held where the formal attire is board shorts and black bikinis. Suffice to say, nothing bad ever really happens in Orange County, and when it does everybody recovers quickly. 

Orange County Movie Essay - 2002 Jake Kasdan Film

As Shaun, the suitably baby-faced Hanks is equal parts plucky and tortured. It’s tough to empathize with a well-off, straight, white male lead in 2022, but this is Tom Hanks’ son we’re talking about. Besides, Shaun is someone who foregoes his easy ride in life to knuckle down and make something of himself as an artist, in direct opposition to his lay about brother (Jack Black, before he really became the Jack Black) and wine-quaffing mother (Catherine O’Hara, in one of her numerous underrated roles). Hanks played second fiddle to Ben Foster just a couple years prior in Get Over It, another cult teen comedy, and he grabs the opportunity to be center stage with both hands, imbuing Shaun with a likeable vulnerability even when he’s expecting too much of everybody around him. 

The central preoccupation of Orange County is Shaun’s desire to get into Stanford, where he can study under writing hero Marcus Skinner (Kevin Kline, in an uncredited cameo). But really, Shaun is desperate to escape the O.C., where the arrogant, reformed slacker believes he’s being held back by all the morons he’s constantly surrounded by, many of whom are played by beloved character actors (Lily Tomlin briefly appears as a guidance counselor who sends the wrong transcript to Stanford, leading Shaun to unload on her about her ineptitude and duly get kicked in the nuts). Of course, the lesson he’s forced to learn, through a short statewide jaunt involving drug misuse, arson and terrible driving, is that growing up in Orange County is what made him into the writer he is. Without this place and these people, where is this otherwise unremarkable young man going to find inspiration? 

Orange County Movie Essay - 2002 Jake Kasdan Film

The White Lotus was widely credited for ruthlessly skewering upper class follies, but Orange County got there 20 years prior, and White — who is originally from nearby Pasadena — is no less incisive in his commentary. Money doesn’t make you happy, as Shaun points out to his disbelieving mother, who shoots back that he should grow up because money clearly does matter. And yet, she and his father are both demonstrably carving out miserable lives surrounded by opulence in their spacious, beachfront mansions. In fact, Shaun’s mother can barely muster up the strength to get dressed most of the time, leading to one of Orange County’s funniest and most cringeworthy sequences as Shaun convinces high-profile Stanford donors (played by Garry Marshall and Dana Ivey — more great cameos) to hear why he should be admitted. Naturally, when the focus is on O’Hara, magic is all but guaranteed. 

Still, Orange County boasts a remarkable ensemble cast, from its main players to the many fun cameos. Arguably the strongest of which is White himself as Shaun’s “illiterate” English teacher, who believes the first name one thinks of upon hearing “Romeo and Juliet” is “Claire Danes.” Like Saturday Night Live’s beloved “SoCal” skits, Orange County is so funny because its humor, though on the nose and silly, is so specific. It’s incredibly era and area referential, from the various characters to the copy of Thrasher magazine in the mail. The killer soundtrack, comprised predominantly of modern pop-punk with an all-timer Foo Fighters cut (“The One”) written specifically for the movie, is so reminiscent of this moment in pop culture, it immediately transports you back there. Of course, Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” features towards the end, but the best/worst inclusion is undoubtedly Crazytown’s “Butterfly,” which is so crucial to the narrative that it appears three separate times and is even the impetus for Shaun figuring out why he’ll never truly escape the O.C. There’s an overabundance of soundtrack songs, but they’re intrinsic to creating the movie’s atmosphere.  

Orange County Movie Essay - 2002 Jake Kasdan Film

Similarly, the fashion — poker-straight hair, bad tribal tattoos — has aged in a way that thankfully makes Orange County feel of its time rather than dated. And yet, the most glaring difference between this movie and the kind of film that would be greenlit nowadays is how blindingly white the cast is. Even the peripheral characters are white, with the only two POC actors playing the help. However, given White’s razor-sharp commentary about privilege, it may have been a purposeful choice, since these two maids/nannies are also among the smartest people with whom Shaun comes into contact. Orange County finds him constantly dealing with other people’s ineptitude, ensuring that, despite the stunning setting and considerable wealth on display, this lifestyle clearly isn’t meant to be aspirational. The film is a comedy of errors that just keeps escalating, but not for lack of trying on Shaun’s part, the setup mimicking the structure of a novella, so we never doubt just how good, or at least promising, his story is. 

White deftly captures the pain and frustration of being a writer, or indeed a creative, but also the joy of it too. Once Shaun realizes he doesn’t have to run away to achieve greatness, the score swells, everybody cheers and Hanks smiles wider than he has the entire movie. Without Black, whose madcap energy bounces entertainingly off Hanks’ exasperated straight man, Shaun would’ve been in danger of reading like a total narc, given he turns over his surfboard in favor of a notebook and foregoes partying to study. The film’s credits are even presented in plain typeface, emphasizing how seriously its protagonist wishes to be taken as a writer. Black was already a star in the making at the time, and he would go on to work with White in School of Rock and Kasdan on the Jumanji sequels, but it’s wonderful to see him completely unleashed as a character who, for example, removes his socks to jump into a pool and save his brother, despite the fact the only other clothes Lance is wearing at the time are underpants. Both Black and Hanks are considered more serious performers these days, but in Orange County, they let loose without fear of reproach. 

Orange County is inarguably a product of its time, but the movie is also timeless in its exploration of how writing requires us to look inward as well as outward — and be just as merciless in the process. Taken purely as a comedy, the film features entertaining cameos from the likes of Ben Stiller, Leslie Mann and the late, great Harold Ramis, which notably never make you wish you were watching an entirely different film with them instead. Whichever way you swing it, though, this eccentric slice of SoCal life goes down easy like a glass of (Mike) white.

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.