I re-watched Animal House last month after a discussion during which it was derided by a new viewer as a painfully unfunny movie full of unlikable characters. I can't really disagree with those sentiments. Although I do laugh during Animal House, it's not aggressively funny, and a lot of its humor is very broad or has since been recycled to the point of banality. Certainly, there are few heroes in Animal House, but this I find to be its best and most subversive joke and why, even though it falls short of its reputation as a hilarious comedy, I find it indispensable as an anarchic counter-cultural moment that deserves its place in movie history.
Set in 1962 at the fictional Faber College (but filmed at the University of Oregon; the dorm in which I lived in 1990 is featured during the title sequence), Animal House takes the interesting approach of ignoring the vast middle of ordinary, hard-working students to depict a battle of wills between the Dean (John Vernon), supported by his smug proto-fascist lackeys at the Omega fraternity, and the worst house on campus, Delta, populated by a varied assemblage of drunks, losers, dorks and con men. Even Delta's nerds can barely register a passing grade. It's significant, I think, that Animal House sets its bar for protagonists so low: in its post-Watergate argument for utter chaos and debasement in place of any existing power or social structure, this is maybe the most brazen anti-establishment message to hit mainstream movie screens between Duck Soup and Fight Club. Animal House may as well have invented today's Twitter trolling with its consistent thwarting of expectations and decency, culminating in an over-the-top finale that completely disregards the moral formula of a underdog victory by tearing everything down and leaving the world in shambles.
As for its laughs, I agree with anyone who thinks that John Belushi's arch clowning is overrated (I do, however, like his eyebrow work), but that's a minor part of Animal House, which is otherwise sprinkled with a dry wit that is played mercilessly straight and captured perfectly by director John Landis, who uses the bigger moments as diversions rather than as the main event. Vernon, Tim Matheson and Peter Riegert excel in this atmosphere, and provide Animal House's richest laughs by throwing away good lines with earnest despicability.
Animal House is not, however, breathless mania. Landis balances the hijinks with a surprising sincerity, taking ample time to capture realistic slices of life that hint at something more subversive than the formulaic comedies that would follow in its wake. There's an acknowledged emptiness, almost helplessly so, and an air of soulful failure to the Deltas. The only redeeming thing about them is their utter humanity, as if they've been caught in a perpetual state of falling from grace — in contrast with the impotent perfection of the Omegas — and can only ease their suffering with another party.
Accused today, in knee-jerk fashion, of sexism and racism, Animal House actually treats its female characterx surprisingly well, often putting them in control of their interactions with both of these gangs of creeps. In a few pointed cases, women are the aggressors and men are the humiliated foils in sexual situations; and Karen Allen's Katy, in the film's most grounded plotline, even gives up on the Deltas altogether after waiting in vain for her relatively sane boyfriend to take his future seriously. The film has also come under retrospective attack for a scene in white four white Deltas and their dates visit an all-black nightclub, and nervously reconsider that choice of location. Rather than being racist, however, this scene simply depicts a tension that might have plausibly existed in 1978 or 1962, and, once again, it's the white men, and their perceptions of the situation, who are both the agitators and fools in this scenario.
At nearly two hours, Animal House runs a bit too long for its episodic plot, but finishes with a spectacular climax that adds one final important satiric point to its madness: with its period setting and a trend-setting "Where are they now?" epilogue for its characters, it pokes one more thumb in the eye of the ordered society that would seem to have nothing to do with any of these misfits: these loud, crude, aimless, drunken, misbehaving, scurrilous dropouts — as well as the monstrous scolds who torment them — with all their imperfections are, nonetheless, the future leaders of America, and will likely be as horrified at the next generation's degenerate behavior as were those who came before them.