National Lampoon’s Van Wilder
by Jon Bastian
Heir Apparent to Animal House Earns the Title
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The short version of the review: National Lampoon’s Van Wilder is a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining and worthwhile movie. See it. You’ll laugh, you’ll wince, you’ll laugh again.
The long version…
Once upon a time, National Lampoon was one of the premier humor and satire magazines around. Well, okay, there were only two, the other one being MAD. But, while MAD had the pubescent crowd (and still does) the ‘Poon aimed for an older audience, with far more adult material. In their heyday, the late 70s, the first film to bear their imprimatur was released. It was a little college comedy called Animal House. It defined the genre, became an instant classic and there are probably still frat boys doing John Belushi “I’m a zit. Get it?” impersonations on campuses everywhere. This was followed by National Lampoon’s Vacation, based on an article from the magazine and itself a very funny comedy. Vacation spawned sequels, some good and some not, and then suddenly the National Lampoon label went from gold to garbage as it became attached to such dreck as Class Reunion, Senior Trip and Loaded Weapon I. Somewhere in there, the magazine’s most famous issue, The Utterly Mind Roasting Summer of O.C. and Stiggs, actually became a non-teen teen movie directed by… Robert Altman. It looked like the mag’s movie career was as dead as the print publication, a relic of a bygone era. Kaput.
Well — it’s ba-a-a-ack.
Van Wilder starts from a simple enough premise. Our titular character, whose full name is Van Wilder (Ryan Reynolds, Dick), attends Coolidge College (as in Martha, not Calvin), where he is halfway through his seventh year as an undergrad. Yes, seventh. It’s not that Van Wilder can’t graduate. Rather, he’d prefer not to. He enjoys college too much to ever leave. It’s a fantasy I’m sure many of us can relate to. Who wouldn’t want to be BMOC on campus, but old enough to get it right? Unfortunately for Van, reality intrudes on fantasy, as his workaholic father Van Wilder Sr. (Tim Matheson, Animal House) finally notices that he’s still paying tuition without seeing any results. He lays down the law and stops payment on the latest check, and suddenly his son has to figure out how to earn his keep. He’s also just hired a personal assistant, Taj Mahal Badalandabad (Kal Penn, American Desi), and wants to let him go due to sudden lack of funds, but Taj sticks around out of sheer dedication. Then, into the middle of all this comes the complication, in the form of beautiful blonde journalism student Gwen (Tara Reid, American Pie). She’s been assigned the impossible story, an interview with Van himself, which she pursues with gusto, leading to unfounded jealousy from her frat boy boyfriend, Richard “Dick” Bagg (Daniel Cosgrove, Beverly Hills, 90210). As Van turns his natural talents at party planning into his tuition money and Gwen digs deeper, Dick counter plots to cause Van’s downfall.
What makes the film work so well is, first and foremost, that these characters are well-developed. Not a one of them is a cardboard cutout. Van is no mere shallow party boy. He has a very altruistic side, and very real reasons for doing what he does. Likewise, Gwen isn’t just a love interest for the hero. She has real integrity and goals, motives that drive her actions throughout the film. Even the villain has more than one dimension, which just makes it more enjoyable when he gets his comeuppance. Or maybe that should be cumuppance… but I’m not going to tell you why. You’ll just have to see for yourself. In any case, the inevitable romance between Van and Gwen is quite believable and quite earned, a rarity in this genre, it seems.
Playing these well-rounded characters is an amazing cast of actors, each of whom is incredible in their own right. The stand-out, though, is Ryan Reynolds, who carries this film. Watch him in even tiny moments, like when he confidently announces that Naomi is “I moan” backwards, then spells it in his head to make sure he was right. Subtle touches like that are a sign of true genius, and this really should be a break-out role for him. He’s funny, talented, firefighter cute, very assured and he is Van Wilder. He hits all the right notes, and seems game for anything, including a love scene that makes the age difference in Sunset Boulevard absolutely trivial. I can’t imagine the film working with anybody else in the part. He’s ably abetted by Kal Penn as the remarkably foul-mouthed and horny exchange student from India who is extremely funny when saying nothing but a hundred times as hilarious when he opens his mouth. Kudos also to the filmmakers for casting Matheson as Van Wilder’s father, symbolically passing the Animal House torch to a new generation. For those who didn’t notice, Matheson was, of course, one of the leads of the former film (at the age of thirty one), a Van Wilder of his generation. His appearance here pulls in all sorts of nice baggage of the “Oh, so that’s what happened to Otter when he grew up” sort.
Even the supporting cast is marvelous. Particularly notable are Emily Rutherfurd as Jeannie, a far-too-eager to please the frats sorority sister and Tom Everett Scott as Elliot, Dick’s right-hand (ahemn) man at the fraternity who tells us volumes about their relationship with a single glance. This moment in the film is paid off in an actor’s gag outtake during the closing credits. Stick around. The joke is worth it. Curtis Armstrong of Revenge of the Nerds fame is on hand as a campus cop and Paul Gleason, recently seen in Not Another Teen Movie, plays Van’s economics professor and parking spot rival. Right down the line, the movie is perfectly cast. Thank you, Barbara Fiorentino (Mission Impossible II) for that.
Yes, the film has its moments of gross-out humor, but they’re not gratuitous. Even the more… um… biologically graphic moments are motivated, and the revenge wreaked on Dick is particularly apt, considering what a tightass he’s been previously. Like American Pie before it, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder has its heart in the right place. For all the sexual and scatological humor, this is a remarkably sweet film at its core, with a lesson to be learned. I give full credit for that to screenwriters Brent Goldberg and David Wagner (Saving Ryan’s Privates), who actually bothered to include things like character development and needs and motivation in their script. It’s just a bonus that their dialogue is sharp and funny and their set-ups and gags work. Everything is aptly helmed by director Walt Becker (Buying the Cow), who hits the right tone in every scene.
So. Just when we thought the teen grossout comedy genre had been killed, it’s revived, and I’m hoping there’s a sequel or two to this movie. If could be called Van Wilderer, and the story is that his father, impressed by his son’s actions in the first film, sends him to grad school to get his MA. Naturally, the follow-up would be Van Wildest, in which our by now thirty-year old hero goes for his PhD at an infamous Party School and teaches the younger kids a thing or two about life.
So, to recap: National Lampoon’s Van Wilder is a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining and worthwhile movie. See it. You’ll laugh, you’ll wince, you’ll laugh again. There are worse ways you could spend ninety-five minutes, but not a lot better in the multiplex right now.
Jon Bastian is a playwright, screenwriter and TV hack who lives in Los Angeles and keeps having those persistent “Oh, wow, it’s finals week and I forgot to go to any of my classes” dreams.
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