Panic time is now over as I have finally found something to talk about this Thursday. (Why don’t I have a DVD plan with Netflix yet? That would surely eliminate some of this stress of finding movies I want to see only to be denied by a limited viewing availability. Oh, wait. That’s right. It costs more money. Yes, I’m poor — I can’t afford that kind of an upgrade, and yes, I will allow you to snicker at me. That’s totally fine.) But once again my DVD library saves me and I don’t have to skip out on
Today’s food for thought: Van Wilder.
Refusing to graduate since: April 5, 2002
It might be surprising to some that a film like Van Wilder, a male college freshman’s wet dream, shares the umbrella title ‘National Lampoon’ with the likes of comedy classics such as the Vacation films and Animal House. How could the company have allowed such a degradation of their comedic appeal to happen? Of course, I hold my judgment for what came after the Ryan Reynolds vehicle. There’s a movie floating out there called National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj which extends Kal Penn’s redemptive story arc from this film into a full-length feature in which he grows into his own at a fictional England-set university. The less said about that one though, the better.
No, the National Lampoon name wasn’t properly sullied until that film debuted (to an audience of silent crickets) in 2006. Truthfully its reputation may have been done in even before this, as the early 2000s gave birth to a litany of unrelated, increasingly juvenile concepts such as Barely Legal and of course, who can forget N.L. Presents: Cattle Call. Van Wilder isn’t particularly revolutionary comedy, demonstrating a keen interest in sexual conquest à la the American Pie franchise while consciously veering away from the more creative situational comedy that produced the Griswold family. Still, with Reynolds starring as the big man at Coolidge College and an emphasis on raucous party-hosting, at least the atmosphere vaguely recalls the scent of John Belushi’s frat house.
Walt Becker’s Van Wilder represented a bright spot in a dark decade when J2 Communications bought the license to the Lampoon name. Even the Chevy Chase-led Vegas Vacation couldn’t bring about the kind of success the original family outings had. The story concerns a young man who, afraid of life after college, perpetually puts off graduating despite a seven-year undergraduate career. He frequently refers to his stay at Coolidge as a “dare to be great” situation, implying that his undecided status is not only intentional but beneficial. How else do you sample all that a major university has to offer?
Of course, his attitude doesn’t sit right with everyone, most notably his father, Van Wilder Sr. (Tim Matheson) who promptly puts a stop on tuition checks when he discovers his son has spent the better part of a decade at Coolidge without earning a degree. Forced to take action to ensure his continued flourishing, Wilder enlists the help of his foreign exchange student/horny assistant Taj Mahal Badalandabad and longtime friend Hutch (Teck Holmes) to plan a semester filled with fundraisers disguised as extravagant bacchanalias. (I still feel like I missed out on the ‘Sue Me, Screw Me Soiree.’)
In full control of his own destiny, Van Wilder is a thoroughly likable young man and that’s wholly due to Reynolds’ comfort in the role. He oozes charisma, optimism and yes, okay, sex appeal but he’s also generous and surprisingly altruistic for a supposed party boy. His knowing winks at the camera — ‘Oh wow, you guys didn’t think that I could pull that off? Me neither!’ — lend the film most of its appeal. Daniel Cosgrove’s Richard Bagg makes up for what Reynolds cannot provide: the film’s obligatory antagonism. Someone has to try to knock the King of Coolidge down a notch or two, right?
As president of Delta Iota Kappa (that’s DIK for short, get it?), Bagg sees Wilder as a threat to his future of attending the prestigious Northwestern University to become a doctor having learned his girlfriend Gwen Pearson (Tara Reid) has been associating with a different social circle when she’s assigned to cover Van Wilder for a story for the campus paper. Cosgrove goes all in, expending a good deal of energy playing this pig of a frat president who winds up on the receiving end of two of the film’s most notorious pranks — one, a scene involving Twinkies and dog sperm (yummy!) disguised as goodies in a false waving of the white flag; the other a highly amusing use of laxatives. The rivalry between Wilder and Bagg is gross and juvenile and ultimately pointless, but damn it if it’s not entertaining stuff.
The most thoroughly unbelievable aspect of Van Wilder is Reid’s journalist Gwen. Not that her stories are outlandish, or that pretty women can’t be journalists. Reid simply doesn’t convince. I buy her story of her movie brother playing hockey for the New York Rangers more than I buy her as a member of the press. But what does any of this really matter anyway? Are we really supposed to believe Wilder’s refusal to graduate is the x-factor in how Coolidge comes together as a community? Would this many people bother to rally around a single student’s cause? A cause that’s in no way health-related nor beneficial to the greater social good. We need look no further than how Van Wilder ends to understand what this particular movie is lampooning.
Becker clearly enjoys mocking the bureaucracy behind higher education. A raucous Hawaiian-themed blow-out brings closure to Wilder’s daddy issues, unites Taj with the girl of his dreams, and finally throws Gwen right into Van’s lap, even if this was a foregone conclusion the moment we first saw the two interact. That the film ends in spectacular party fashion says much about what is expected of the average college student.
Recommendation: It may not rank amongst National Lampoon’s best but Van Wilder is a solid enough addition to the film franchise that expanded the reputation of the humor-based magazine of the same name. From the opening scene this film launches an all-out campaign to offend and disgust in the name of poor taste. If you’re not a fan of that kind of stuff you may as well ignore this. If that stuff sits right with you, this might have been a film you watched over and again before you left for college. Or maybe that’s just me.
Running Time: 92 mins.
TBTrivia: Ryan Reynolds only saw a rough cut of the film before it came out. He hasn’t seen the film since.
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