Directed by John Landis
Animal House Revisited
After a lapse of thirty-three years, I decided to take another look at “Animal House,” the iconic film comedy of the 1970s. I remembered it as being about the funniest thing I’d ever seen, with all the goings on at Faber College, and John Belushi leading the Delta House and doing wonderfully witty stunts against Dean Wormer and the Omega House, and so I wondered just how the film would hold up today. Well, I’m not quite sure how to put this, but let me be frank. It’s a terrible film. There, I’ve said it.
What’s interesting to think about is how badly it was directed. Everyone in the film mugs for the camera instead of playing it straight. This was a John Landis film, and he went on to direct some very good comedies, like “Trading Places” and “The Blues Brothers.” But when you look at “Animal House” in the cold light of two thousand ten, it turns out to have been a disaster. Why? Because it’s not funny. Everything in it is just hammered at us and telegraphed well in advance. There is one funny line – interestingly, not so funny today, and that is Bluto’s line after the whole fraternity has been expelled. He says, “Seven years of college down the drain.” Yes, in 1978 that was a funny line. And by the way, John Belushi has only been given eighth credit in the film, after a lot of people who’ve long since been gone from Hollywood.
But with the exception of John Belushi, most of the other players have a) no witty lines; and b) don’t quite know how to deliver the ones they have. This is where a director can make his or her mark; showing everyone just what will work in comedy and what will not. You can tell what’s wrong when you look at Donald Sutherland, who knew very well how to be funny. He plays a very laid-back teacher of English here, and after his wonderful performance in Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H”, playing the pot-smoking professor should have been a cinch. Instead, the film comes to a halt every time he’s on the screen. Landis, the director, should have taken him aside, given him better lines and a lot more interesting pieces of business to do; instead, he’s just photographed in scene after scene, without any directorial focus, and nothing he does on screen is even mildly amusing.
There’s what in retrospect is a terrible scene, when the boys (all white) and their girlfriends wander into a black bar and are escorted out by the patrons. Maybe in 1978 that was funny; not so much now. And even the big climax at the end, when the Delta boys cook up a way to demolish the college’s Homecoming parade, turns out not to be worthwhile; the whole film builds up to that, and then it just falls flat. So, I guess we all have disappointments in our lives, but “Animal House” turns out to be among the biggest.