National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002)

[11 April 2002]

By Devon Powers

Van's the Man

Everybody loves Van Wilder (Ryan Reynolds), and why not? A seventh year student at Coolidge College, Van is a master of charm and a harbinger of sage advice. He throws a mean party, one that draws scantily clad honeys and transcends boundaries of race and religion, class and clique, sex and sexual orientation. To boot, he’s got a killer smile, a fantastic bod, and more cash-money than you can shake a stick at. Yes, Van Wilder is a man of men and an ode to the All-American Collegiate Dream. Don’t we all wish our college experience could be like his?

Then suddenly, tragically, a lugnut is loosed on Van Wilder’s Fun Bus, and his entire enterprise verges on the brink of a deadly crash. First, good old Vanny’s pop, a businessman who’s startled to learn that his son is still in school, stops payment on Van’s tuition. Next, a sexy brainiac journalism student named Gwen (Tara Reid) is after his story for the campus paper, though is seemingly immune to Van’s sexual advances. The horror! The injustice! In the face of such adversity, how will our hero keep the party going?

There you have it, folks: the premise of National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, the latest version of Maxim, the Movie. Think of it a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Back to School rejiggered unsuccessfully in the vein of American Pie: an ode to what happens when the over-privileged revel in being sophomoric, a hurrah to bad boys never becoming men.

It’s foolish to expect a movie like Van Wilder to manage anything more sophisticated than knee-jerk humor. Take your pick and it’s in there: masturbation jokes, vomit jokes, bestiality jokes, shit jokes, tit jokes. Then, of course, there’s the standard treatment of co-eds: hardbodies with bodacious ta-tas, perpetually donning tanks and minis, who always seem to be flashing décolletage or backing that thang up. Don’t think that the crudity in Van Wilder stops there, though. It tops off with some just-plain-offensive stereotypes. Lucky recipients of the royal treatment range from immigrants to gays, people of color to the disabled, the elderly to the sickly.

But it would be too easy to write off Van Wilder simply for its off-color humor (though it’s a sad fact, especially from National Lampoon, who has been known to create funny movies with at least a modicum of irony). What makes Van Wilder disappointing is that, like its main character, it has a startling hubris and a completely bogus sense of introspection. Of course you’ll love Van because he’s so great, the movie seems to say; of course Tara Reid will give the guys in the audience a boner; obviously, all the jokes in the movie are damn funny. First things first: many of the jokes simply are not funny.

What’s more, and somewhat strangely, in these days when self-awareness is king, Van Wilder is completely level, unself-conscious, and boring. It’s the equivalent of using a telegram when everybody’s got a cell-or, in film terms, the equivalent of reverting back to Porky’s when there’s been American Pie. Did director Walt Becker (not to mention writers Brent Goldberg and David Wagner) really think we wouldn’t see this?

Like Parker Lewis (and of course, Ferris Bueller, on whom all these boys are based), Van can’t lose. It becomes apparent that his party-guy antics are undergirded by a benevolent spirit, that his class-skipping routine does not reflect his supreme intelligence, that beneath those rock-hard abs is a tender soul capable of feeling pain and love. Gwen, as she “reports” her story, discovers that there’s more to Van than meets even her keen journalist eyes. But this is kiddie-pool depth. In the end, our hero is exactly what we assumed him to be from the beginning: super-fun, super-cute, super-smart, and super-rich.

I am compelled, once again, to cite American Pie—which, compared to Van Wilder, looks like Citizen Kane. In addition to reviving the doubled-over-laughing gross-out flick, Pie was also sharp, full, and, dare I say, complex. It was willing to make fun of its characters, to depict true sadness, to dash its characters’ boyish dreams and show them braving new territories (even if one example was a pool table). But Van Wilder (the movie and the character) starts and ends in exactly the same place. We are left with a film that never questions its own smug confidence, a character who does not have to develop and grow, because he’s always been perfect. We are left with someone who only teaches, but never learns (because after all, he’s so smart, he’s always known his own faults). I don’t know about you, but I hate people like that.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/national-lampoons-van-wilder/