In the summer of 2005, while Wedding Crashers was enjoying the second half of its theatrical run, a friend and I drove 50 miles to see the film a second time. Today, I don’t know what type of film it would take me to drive 50 miles, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist. Although, for context, we were living in a town that still doesn’t know what brunch means AND our trip to the cineplex had a built-in visit to the closest IHOP for their perennial funnel cake pancakes. Gimmicky flapjacks aside, our trip illustrates how appealing Wedding Crashers was – how the Frat Pack era’s latest felt like the clearest crystallization of the Hollywood comedy landscape.
In 2004, USA Today’s Susan Wloszczyna coined the term “Frat Pack” after visiting the set of Wedding Crashers. With Old School still fresh on her mind, it seemed apparent that actors like Vince Vaughn, the Wilson brothers and Ben Stiller had focused their collaborative proclivities on a certain type of bro-tinged humor. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn were just hitting their mid-thirties then, and were forging their populist stride making movies about the lament of the male thirtysomething. Wedding Crashers was the final success of the Frat Pack movement, which peaked quickly but would go on to flounder on the shores of a changing filmscape.
First, what films makes up The Frat Pack era? The canon is not a tightly sealed container. Wikipedia has an interesting grid to help decide its inclusions based on commonality of actors/directors/producers, but even that generous list omits some of the subgenre’s breadth. While its core members started relationships in earlier films and co-starred in films concurrent to the Frat Pack movement, when I refer to the Frat Pack, I understand its core as the following: Old School, Starsky & Hutch, Dodgeball, Anchorman and Wedding Crashers. Each of these films maintain a Bros Before Hoes mentality (both diegetically and non-diegetically) limited in message, perspective and cast. And each title seems peripherally aware of the others’ existence.
The incestual, webbed nature of these films becomes more understandable when considering the rapid-fire production of the movement: the aforementioned Frat Pack core spans 3 years, from 2003 through 2005. Each film was playing on the audience’s consciousness of the last. By the time Will Ferrell’s cameo rolls around in Wedding Crashers, it worked just by existing as another Will Ferrell cameo, no matter how well he played the seminal crasher.
If Will Ferrell was the king who stepped down from the thrown every once in a while to embrace a film’s fringes, Vince Vaughn was the Frat Pack’s blue-collar foreman. More than any other collaborator, Vince Vaughn embodied the foul mouthed, kinetic brashness that drove the subgenre. Even his IMDb profile labels him the embodiment of the Frat Pack. While Ben Stiller or either Wilson brother often played the naïve straight man, Vaughn played the former frat boy, sometimes literally: he coerced Luke into starting a frat in Old School, while dragging Owen to crash titular weddings using his bro-to-bro charming vulgarity. Aptly, he played a parody of a coke kingpin in Starsky & Hutch, while a similarly brash but dissimilarly sensitive Vaughn built a rag-tag team of titular dodgeball losers. His rudeness was, more often than not, the comedic thrust of these core films.
While each of the first four core films were bankable hits at the box office, there was something special to moviegoers about Wedding Crashers. Its Frat Pack predecessors were lucky if they hit $100mil domestically, but Wedding Crashers crushed even the best of those (Dodgeball) with $209mil domestically (and handsome foreign numbers to boot). But what was it about Wedding Crashers that exposed it as the pinnacle of the Frat Pack?
Not only am I curious about what made Wedding Crashers the zenith of the movement, but why, also, did it mark the end of bankable Frat Pack films? Surely, the subgenre didn’t end with Wedding Crashers but is still continuing to spin its wheels. In fact, almost everything Vince Vaughn put his name on prior to his recent, flaccid attempt at drama has tried to re-instill some of the essence of the Frat Pack stamp. With outings like The Watch, The Internship, Delivery Man and this year’s Unfinished Business, it’s been uncomfortable to watch the once fresh lines of Vince Vaughn turn into punchline-less stammering. And this isn’t just my apprehension of the loudmouthed funnymanchild; America does not want to watch him try to be funny anymore. The most successful of these low hanging fruit, Google’s The Internship, still lost millions, while Unfinished Business has struggled to even hit $10mil in lifetime gross – leaving the production company wishing the film was its own titular unfinished business.
If Unfinished Business is the last semblance of the Frat Pack, Hollywood’s bro-ey manchild has been an ignored echo for the past decade. The mere instance of each of these Vaughn vehicle failures being greenlit makes me wonder what corpse’s pulse Hollywood has its fingers on.
With the Frat Pack’s lifespan in mind, I went into my most recent viewing of Wedding Crashers wondering the following: If the film captured the most successful ingredients of an era, what does the Frat Pack’s apex feel like, presently, amongst a social and filmic landscape that is no longer interested in such films?
It certainly still has plenty of moments; it’s often funny, charming and silly. Wedding Crashers is altogether a plenty enjoyable experience, but there’s no shaking how dated its sexual politics are. The way the film frames sexual predation, in particular, is reprehensible. John and Jeremy (Wilson and Vaughn, respectively) come off as cool, funny and overall eligible bachelors even though their entire enterprise is built around manipulating women into sleeping with them. Contrarily, sexually forward females are treated as gross and inappropriate. In moments like Fisher’s under-the-dinner-table handjob (and about 5 other similar scenes) or the mother soliciting her boobs to John, the film implies that being sexually forward is not a woman’s initiative, but a man’s (unless it’s a sex-crazed gay man, of course).
Isla Fisher’s character, alone, is a harbor for misogynistic projection. Whether it’s the despicable cultivation of her aforementioned sexual ferocity, her attachment issues or just the severely underwritten personality she touts, Gloria isn’t doing the film any favors.
The only character capable of overshadowing Gloria’s unsavory development is the implementation of Bradley Cooper’s Lodge. Playing the undeniable villain, it isn’t exactly how terrible Lodge is, but how problematic his villainous existence is in Wedding Crashers. He represents an obvious, overt misogyny – he brags about sluts and says incomprehensible things like “I want a wife, not a fuckin’ martyr” – which serves to soften the retrogressive edge of John and Jeremy, particularly John.
The biggest blow to John’s budding relationship with Rachel McAdams’ Claire is based on his deception – maintaining a fabricated identity – not the premise that he’s the type of guy to hit up weddings in order to serially manipulate women into sex. The film doesn’t consider John and Jeremy’s motivations nefarious or harmful to women; that label is left to Lodge and his exaggerative chauvinism.
As John and Claire’s relationship progresses, it’s revealed to me why Wedding Crashers was the Frat Pack’s most successful film: it’s part romantic comedy. The film gets its feet more than wet in rom-com territory and is able to handle it fairly well. Certainly, part of my (previously) robust interest in the film was how sincerely it attempts to balance its sex-comedy routine with a developed love story. (Note the terrible film score when McAdams and Wilson first lock eyes, or the Coldplay song when they exchange clandestine midnight check ups as token rom-com conventions that prove the filmmakers were going for broke.) Although it was ultimately imbalanced, the ensemble is charming enough to expel some semblance of warmness.
Whereas Old School was a movie made for men, Wedding Crashers hits a larger psychographic by offering gross out humor and sex alongside tender love and relational turmoil. (This also explains why the film’s runtime is so bloated – to fit one and a half films into a Hollywood comedy.) Unfortunately, this genre bending aims to cater to a larger female audience than other Frat Pack films while preserving the subgenre’s male gaze.
To return to one of my original questions, what is it about the Frat Pack that we are no longer interested in? More specifically, are we no longer interested in films that showcase the petulance and lament of the manchild? Of course, movie-goers are still interested in the lament of the manchild, but this distinct version of such, the ex-frat boy, is no longer a viable money maker. The starkly motivated hunt for promiscuity that is predicated upon manipulation is socially unfit, today. Most succinctly, Wedding Crashers’ treatment of homosexuality, from the view of the manchild, can only be found, presently, in the caveman politics of Adam Sandler films.
So then, what type of manchild are we interested in now? My thoughts immediately land on the works of Noah Baumbach. Not only do films like Greenberg and While We’re Young feature ex-Frat Packer Ben Stiller, but they also focus quite heavily on the potent existentialism of feeling inadequate for adulthood. But Baumbach’s films are not the box office heavyweights that Wedding Crashers was. Thus, it’s hard to say the American mainstream public has supplanted the Frat Packer manchild with those of a couple indie films.
However, the two most commercially successful comedies of 2014 were 22 Jump Street, a movie about how easy it is for a couple thirty year-olds to fit in with college students, and Neighbors, a movie about a thirtysomething couple trying in vain to fit in with the frat next door. Actors like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill are surely who have taken the manchild throne from the Wilson and Vaughn of the aughts. These actors are equipped with a vocabulary of the zeitgeist (as much as they actually supply the vocabulary of the zeitgeist) in a way Wilson and Vaughn are too old for, now.
(Grown Ups 2 was another very successful film at the box office that also centered on the manchild, however, I wouldn’t say that franchise captures the zeitgeist the way Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen do, or the way Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson used to.)
And, importantly, Rogen and Hill operate in a way that is congruous with today’s social norms (i.e. sexual, gender and race politics). This isn’t to say they are larger social justice advocates than Wilson and Vaughn, but Hollywood changes with the times, even if to only meet the lowest standards of political correctness and sexual politics. But Hollywood is sneaky; it subverts its political correctness by maintaining retrogressive themes of yesteryear. Basically, Neighbors is a more socially progressive film than Old School the same way Superbad is more progressive than American Pie.
Comparing Frat Pack films with today’s hottest comedies highlights a slight shift in accepted social norms while watching a relatively stationary set of themes, or theme: the manchild. Hollywood, like its favorite comedic characters, is stuck in arrested development. To look back at Wedding Crashers as a representation of last decade’s Hollywood is to experience the stunted repackaging of today’s faux-progression, a rebranding of the manchild to talk like we talk now.
It would be shortsighted to not mention the growing trend of popular female comedies like The Heat or Spy. The latter showed that Hollywood and American audiences might be interested in something more interesting about Melissa McCarthy than her fall-down-go-boom shtick. The hope is that she (and the revenue that accompanies her) can inspire a sea change, away from the perennial thirtysomething white male’s nostalgic rite of passage. Where there’s money, there’s hope, I suppose.