Dir. by Walt Becker - 1 hr. 32 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
If anyone is going to knock off "Animal House," National Lampoon has more right to do so than anyone else. Granted, there are many, many years between "Animal House" and "Van Wilder," but it's their own template, so I won't judge them too harshly for following it. And if you're inclined to these kinds of movies, you can do a lot worse than "Van Wilder."
The titular character, Van Wilder (Ryan Reynolds), is entering his seventh year at Coolidge College, with no prospect of graduation in sight. Van has put those years to use becoming a benevolent BMOC, using his charm and connections to grease difficult paths for other students. However, his unusual approach to matriculating means that the student newspaper's editor (Tom Everett Scott) wants a story on Van, and assigns the story to hotshot cutie pie Gwen Pearson (Tara Reid). Van is more interested in dating Gwen, which incurs the wrath of her boyfriend, pre-med student Richard Bagg (Daniel Cosgrove). Ultimately, Van is put into a situation where he has to graduate or leave Coolidge without a degree.
Let's get to the good stuff first. This is very much a "save the house" movie, through and through. It's a useful comedy plot, because it allows for unmotivated or mired characters to be spurred to action, and because it's a situation that plays out over a fixed amount of time. It might be the very best stock comedy plot, because it doesn't require a strong antagonist, but does allow weaselly and jerkish characters to do their thing without having to construct a story that props them up as particularly cunning or powerful. Instead, they merely have to be opportunistic and not at all sympathetic to the hero. And the hero isn't put in the position of vanquishing (or victimizing) another character, which would be a more complicated morality tale.
In a "save the house" movie, the entire film rises and falls on individual comedic performances. Ryan Reynolds is a capable lead in comedies (he's pretty good here, even if the film isn't anything spectacular), and it's easy to see why he kept getting motormouth charmer roles after this. This also might have been one of the very last films before Tara Reid was better known as a train-wreck than as an actress. Van Wilder's two assistants, played by Kal Penn and Teck Holmes, aren't bad in their supporting roles (particularly Penn). There are a number of cameos (Erik Estrada, Edie McClurg, Curtis "Booger" Armstrong) that are fun, too.
"National Lampoon's Van Wilder" is a fun movie, even if it's inconsequential and formulaic (which aren't deal-breakers with comedy - performances and building great comedic scenes are far more important). It's a tough movie to recommend though. There has been a steady stream of college movies like this one over the last couple of decades, and which ones a viewer is partial to seems to be largely correlated to when that viewer was in college himself, give or take a couple of years. If you're the right age, "Van Wilder" is a fun way to blow a couple of hours (especially if you're doing so with a few beers or whatever). If you're not in that age range, it's like Mick Jagger wrote: "Who wants yesterday's papers?"
2 / 5 - TV