Write that down.
Twenty-four years after Tim Matheson‘s Eric “Otter” Stratton fast-talked his way towards saving a fraternity in National Lampoon’s Animal House, the torch was passed onto former “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place” star Ryan Reynolds. The timing isn’t surprising since American Pie and its sequel earned box office success while bringing the gross-out antics Matheson and friends originated back to the big screen. This is why I never had an interest in watching Van Wilder despite being a Reynolds fan. It simply never seemed as though it possessed the same level of heart the Pie movies brought to the table to combat their raunchiness. But while correct on that point, I discovered that it didn’t necessarily need it since its raunchiness was so much tamer.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have dog semen-filled eclairs or drunk grade-schoolers puking out their bus’ windows—gross-out set-pieces are definitely strung along to coincide with the flimsy plot’s decision to pretend Van and Richard Bagg (Daniel Cosgrove‘s “Dick”) are rivals when doing so only diminishes the headstrong object of their desire Gwen Pearson’s (Tara Reid) ability to realize she’s out of their league. Where the film proves tamer is its sexuality. Besides an unfortunate combination of oils and candles by Van’s assistant Taj (Kal Penn immortalized onscreen as an example of how POC are forced to mock their heritage for Hollywood opportunities two years before proving his worth in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle), sex and nudity in general is almost nonexistent.
Instead we watch as Van’s trajectory becomes that of a misunderstood humanitarian. Born from the annals of true life (Florida State University’s “top partier” according to Rolling Stone, Bert Kreischer), screenwriters Brent Goldberg and David Wagner (who’d eventually write the far superior The Girl Next Door) spun the mystique of excess into a façade of insecurity. Van isn’t therefore embarking on his seventh year of undergraduate studies at Coolidge (to the chagrin of a father played by Matheson in an inspired role reversal) because he loves having a good time. No, he’s doing it because he’s afraid of what might come next. Why voluntarily put himself out into the world as a nobody newcomer when he can continue augmenting his popularity on a campus that hails him as king?
It’s this revelation that Gwen uncovers as a hard-hitting student journalist for whom her editor assigns this supposed puff piece. But Walt Becker‘s film isn’t about the drama of her discovery or the pathos of Van’s all-too common plight. This is a paper-thin romp wherein Gwen’s talents as a writer come secondary to her being Tara Reid and thus able to turn the vain head of Wilder her way. He rejects her desire to write about him because he’s cautious about exposing his vulnerabilities. Why does he ultimately let her? Because he puts her on a pedestal once her smarts equal her looks. And having a dickbag boyfriend in Dick Bagg (Cosgrove is having the most fun of everyone) only increases the appeal so he can “save” her.
This is why Gwen must also save Van so the scales can even out and we can ignore how chauvinistic things truly are beneath their budding romance. This also leads to the requisite social clash when someone as uncouth as Van enters the rarified air of Dick’s parents’ circle of nepotistic success. These are the moments where the film shines because they let Reynolds sink his teeth into a role perfectly suited to his sharp-tongued sarcasm. Add a true rivalry between Van and a respected, hot-tempered professor (Paul Gleason as McDoogle, an obvious play on his Vernon from The Breakfast Club) and the laughs come hard and fast. Even Penn earns some chuckles despite the faux Indian accent because the filth he delivers is funnier with its preconceptions.
Sadly the whole forgets that we came to watch the hilarity and not an arc of redemption. The filmmakers could have gotten away with everything being disjointed because the sole dramatic impetus was Van needing to make enough money to pay the tuition his father froze. That they realize he can’t earn Gwen’s love without growing is commendable, but their shifting gears to repackage him at the eleventh hour proves lazily rushed and unsatisfying. All these characters that were butts of jokes become pawns in a new plot to turn Wilder into a “real boy” and it becomes tough to keep your eyes open from the fatigue so much rolling provides. It’s a shame because this play at legitimacy only reminds us how stupid the rest was.
That stupidity worked because Van Wilder never pretended to be anything else. And while that wouldn’t make it a success, we could at least not care that we were laughing at tone and characterizations devoid of purpose beyond that specific reaction. Its strings are made visible and its narrative and emotional shortcomings laid bare once it starts wanting us to actually care about the relationships. That hollowness puts it more in line with the direct-to-DVD fare that licensed the National Lampoon moniker than those projects built under it thanks to John Landis, John Hughes, Harold Ramis, and others. It’s good for a laugh and made Reynolds a star by embracing his talents rather than suppressing them, but it was quickly supplanted by the aforementioned work everyone did next.