Van Wilder: Freshman Year

| July 14, 2009

I was pleasantly surprised by National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2001, reviewed elsewhere), which only had pretensions of being a college gross-out comedy under the then greatly devalued National Lampoon label, but which actually turned out to be, as I put it, “a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining and worthwhile movie.” It was a nice surprise, and revealed Ryan Reynolds’s star potential as he brought heart and soul to the movie.
Eight years later – which is as long as the original Van Wilder spent in college – the direct to video prequel arrives, without the National Lampoon imprimatur but with the pretensions of being a college gross-out comedy and it, too, is actually a nice surprise. Not quite the unmitigated success of its famous predecessor, it nonetheless matches the tone of the original and, more importantly, does not feel like a bunch of actors just cashing a paycheck, but rather a talented ensemble giving their all – which is, of course, the key to comedy in which, if properly conceived, the stakes are far, far higher than drama.
That’s not to say that plot holes and leaps of logic do not abound here. They were all over the place in the original as well, but the weird combination of pushing the envelope comedy and a truly good-natured heart do a lot to make us willingly suspend our disbelief. The prime example is the anachronistic nature of the enterprise. If this is Van Wilder’s freshman year, then it should take place around 1993, in which case a 3G cell phone dropped out of a time machine and an incident of beer boarding did as well (although, to be fair, that particular interrogation technique dates back to at least World War II). On the other hand, there’s nary a mention of the internet or social networking in sight here, and whether that was an attempt to ground it in1993 or only because the screenwriters haven’t been on a college campus since the days when binge drinking was an acceptable minor is unknown – although the expression “WTF” does make an appearance, again at least a decade before its time. And why a civilian college that was voted Playboy’s “Party School of 1979″ is now run by a military officer dean who has banned sex, drinking, drugs and anything else fun is a bit of a mystery, as is the apparent total disregard of those rules by the student body with complete impunity.
Still, for the genre, these are excusable, because the film doesn’t take itself seriously while the dedicated cast takes it absolutely seriously, and this is probably why the film works so well. The big question of course, is this: Does young Van Wilder stand up to his considerably talented predecessor? And this answer is, for the most part, yes. Although he bears less than a passing resemblance to Ryan Reynolds (and is a year or two older than Reynolds was in the original, although looking younger and playing eighteen) Jonathan Bennett (Mean Girls) manages to channel the same Van Wilder spirit without coming across as an imitator because he wisely plays the character as the future legend who is only just beginning to discover his power. Unlike his predecessor, young Van Wilder is vulnerable.
Bennett is ably abetted by a cast of mostly unknowns, including relative newcomers Nestor Aaron Absera as Farley Marley, his white stoner roomate with the inexplicable rasta-mon accent, and Jerry Shea as Yu Dum Fok, the Chinese immigrant with, initially, rather rough oral sex techniques who may be more than he appears. Combine the two, and you’d probably get Taj – neither of them can touch the great Kal Penn, but they at least nibble at his ankles and provide many genuine laughs.
As the senior member of the cast and primary antagonist, in the long tradition of evil tight-asses running right back to Dean Vernon Wormer of National Lampoon’s Animal House fame, Kurt Fuller (tons of TV for years) brings us Dean Charles Reardon, and he is gleeful in his evil hypocrisy – the kind of villain you love to hate, because the actor just has such a great time playing him. And Fuller deserves special kudos for true dedication to his art, has he has several inappropriate moments with dogs in the film, one of which (as is proven in the bloopers) was not faked.
In the subordinate villain roles, Steve Talley (American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile) and Nic Nac (2 Dudes and a Dream) echo the weird relationship between the original’s Richard “Dick” Bagg and Gordon, playing Dirk Arnold and Corporal Benedict, respectively. Incidentally, in two American Pie direct to video films, Talley played Dwight Stiffler, heir apparent to the sort of is, sort of isn’t villain originally portrayed by Seann Willaim Scott.
The plot, such as it is, is what you’d expect. Van Wilder, aka Vance Wilder V, graduates high school, and goes on to Coolidge College, because four of his ancestors graduated from the place. The hard-nosed Dean has a grudge against the family and is determined to drive him out. Hijinks ensue. Oscar fare? Hardly. But when you just want to kick back and have some mindless laughs and titillation, you could definitely do far worse. And, in fact, this film made me reconsider going back to catch up with Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj, which I avoided originally because I thought there was no way it could live up to the original. Now, I’m not so sure. On the other hand, if the producers try to turn this into a direct to video franchise, they’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and I don’t see where they could possibly go. After all, it would be a series as long as Harry Potter, with Sophomore Year, Junior Year, and Senior Year parts I, II and III.
By the way, while most direct to video releases really skimp on the special features, this is a welcome exception, with documentaries, bloopers, behind the scenes footage and more. Definitely worth checking out.

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