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MOVIE REVIEW

This 'Freshman' has a lot to learn

August 31, 2007|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

Like a vintage batch of dorm-brewed trash can punch, the potent, merrymaking but also headache-inducing effects of sexual identity politics on young collegians will always be fertile ground for laughs. It's a minefield the indie comedy "Freshman Orientation" gamely traverses, serving up a gay/straight mixer of horn-dog humor, Greek cruelty, mistaken identity and late-in-the-game sensitivity that has bursts of spirit, but too often feels more like a tapped-out keg than a provocative romp.

Far from his dull Midwestern background and loving it, Clay (Sam Huntington) rolls into university life as a bad boy wannabe ready to indulge in what he sees as a "campus ho-asis" of female promiscuity. Too bad his perfect target -- insecure blond cutie Amanda (Kaitlin Doubleday) -- thinks he's gay after he's caught in a public bit of pledge-week hazing. But when he finds that her sorority requires her to woo a gay student to be her date for a party -- not knowing it's a prank aimed at humiliating campus outcasts -- Clay takes the Billy Wilder-esque bait of pretending to be something he's not, in the hopes that he can go from girlfriend status to you-converted-me success story.

Despite a first act portrayal of college as an interpersonal hell so lacking in appeal -- everyone's either mean or snivelingly needy, and nobody's funny -- that it nearly sinks the movie outright, first-time writer-director Ryan Shiraki finds surer footing depicting Clay's undercover immersion into playing gay and its positive effect on his personality. Though it's patently schematic -- involving the de rigueur image makeover, flashcard drills (Tom of Finland! Alexander the Great!) and befriending a queeny bartender played by John Goodman like a holdover from "The Boys in the Band" -- it at least kick-starts the narrative and enables Huntington and Doubleday to make an impact as a couple drawn to each other but stymied by outside pressures and inside deceptions. Even the obligatory sexual awakening story of Clay's roommate Matt (Mike Erwin) earns its moments.

Ultimately Shiraki's ambition gets the better of him when he tries to detonate his identity themes into a farcical campuswide skirmish between the Greeks and radicals: Tone is the real casualty. But there's enough here to suggest that Shiraki is more thoughtful than his woeful reliance on stereotypes -- behold, militantly angry lesbians and super-drunk chicks! -- and cynical crassness better suited to a "Will & Grace" episode. Because the last thing you want trying to sell a breakthrough emotional moment when one character tells another, "You're more than the sum of your parts," is to have the audience expect a joke about genitals.

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"Freshman Orientation." MPAA rating: R for strong sexual content, language and some drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. At Regent Showcase, 614 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 934-2944.

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