Keeping it in the family

Film - Philip Kerr on how Hollywood operates like a 15th-century Italian state

It is tough getting started in Hollywood. Believe me, I know what I'm talking about. I've been getting started in Hollywood for 10 years. But the great thing about America - the thing that keeps you going - is that anyone can make it, right? All it takes is the determination to succeed. If you want something badly enough, generally speaking, you will get it. Of course, as Napoleon himself recognised, talent is not enough; you have to be lucky, too. And in Hollywood, as anywhere else, luck is in much shorter supply than talent. So all that is left for any ordinary person who wants to make it in Hollywood is to take the great Geoffrey Boycott's advice and work hard at being lucky.

Or so you might think.

In Orange County, rising young stars Colin Hanks and Schuyler Fisk head up an outstanding cast - John Lithgow, Jack Black, Kevin Kline, Chevy Chase, Catherine O'Hara, Lily Tomlin, Harold Ramis, and Ben Stiller - in an otherwise small-scale, coming-of-age comedy, directed by Jake Kasdan, that has plenty of laughs, and lots of heart. If the movie does have a fault, it's that it's too short (82 minutes, including titles) and bears all the hallmarks of a protracted period of editing.

Shaun Brumder (Hanks) is content to be a bright, talented, but essentially aimless Southern California beach bum until one day his friend drowns in a freak surfing accident, and he discovers a novel by the acclaimed author Martin Skinner (Kline). Inspired by what he reads, Shaun decides to get out of Orange County and study creative writing at Stanford University. (That's the sweet thing about Americans: they always think that they have to take a course on something before they can do it. I remember a friend of mine, who teaches a creative writing class at Yale, telling me how shocked he was to discover that no one who had enrolled in his class had any work in progress: "Well, gee, sir," they chorused, "that's why we're taking this class: to find out how to do it, Duh!")

After being denied a place at Stanford due to a paranoid and incompetent careers counsellor (Tomlin), Shaun resolves to persuade the people at Stanford that he deserves to be enrolled after all. A host of hilarious circumstances now intervenes to obstruct his dream of escaping his hometown nightmare, and Shaun is forced to seek help from the very people from whom he thinks he wants to escape: his adoring, ingenuous girlfriend Ashley (Fisk), his permanently stoned brother (Black) and, most of all, his terminally dysfunctional parents (O'Hara and Lithgow).

A case of they fuck you up, your mum and dad, and your brother, and your girlfriend, then? Well, yes, kind of. Except that one is tempted to wonder just how some of these kids would know, even remotely, what Larkin was on about? How fucked up is it possible to be by your mum and dad, at least in terms of getting the right breaks in Tinseltown, when your mum and dad are members of Hollywood's aristocracy? Take Colin Hanks, for instance. His mum and dad are Rita Wilson (OK, she's his stepmother) and Tom Hanks. Or the eccentrically named Schuyler Fisk (which sounds more like an unscrupulous firm of attorneys in a novel by John Grisham), whose mum and dad are Sissy Spacek and Hollywood's leading art director, Jack (Badlands) Fisk. And let's not forget that Jake Kasdan's dad is the top screenwriter and director Lawrence (The Empire Strikes Back) Kasdan.

Reading the credits for this film, I was reminded of the New Statesman competition, 20 years ago, which invited readers to suggest the least credible title for a book. The winner was Martin Amis's My Struggle. Which prompted me to wonder if the least likely title for a movie involving these three young movie scions was not Hard Times.

All of which perhaps explains how it is that the likes of Kline, Stiller, Chase and Ramis agreed to appear in this movie in what are essentially bit parts. Because Hollywood is as much about power as any 15th-century Italian state; and the plain fact of the matter is that no one actor - with the possible exception of Tom Cruise - wields more power in Hollywood than Colin's dad. Who in their right mind wouldn't want to help Tom's kid? After all, he's a nice enough boy: engaging, tall, quite good looking, with nice teeth. Good- ness, he can even act, a bit. So where's the harm?

We don't have to like it, but that's the way of the world, and it's high time the wrecking crew occupying Downing Street woke up to this fact. The Americanophile Blair, who seems intent on sweeping away all traces of "elitism" in our society, might care to reflect on the fact that the US has many more so-called power elites than we do. America even has its own House of Lords and hereditary system. It's called Hollywood.

Orange County (12A) is on general release