Another week, another gross-out college comedy–ugh. “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder” isn’t quite as awful as “Slackers” or “Sorority Boys” (or, to go back to high school, “Not Another Teen Movie”), but it’s quite bad enough, particularly considering its pedigree. After all, the titular prefix calls to mind the granddaddy of all such flicks, “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” and while John Landis’ 1978 movie isn’t nearly as good as its success (and later reputation) suggest (in fact the funniest of the “National Lampoon” pictures was undoubtedly 1983’s hilarious “Vacation”), it at least had John Belushi to give it some distinction. “Van Wilder” offers nothing remotely comparable, and in trying to scale the highest levels of coarseness it descends to the depths of good taste.
The picture is named after its hero, a smooth operator in his seventh year as an undergraduate at Coolidge College. Van, as played by Ryan Reynolds, is supposed to be the ultra-cool dude who’s the soul of the campus, though the bane of the administration and the bete noire of uptight frat boys; his shenanigans may drive authority figures like Professor McDoogle (Paul Gleason) nuts, but though they seem brainless, they’re all actually good deeds in disguise, and they earn him the loyalty of all the students he’s helped. Unfortunately Van’s spring semester is endangered by two misfortunes: his wealthy father (Tim Matheson) decides to cut off his tuition money, and Gwen (Tara Reid), a crusading campus reporter, begins an investigative piece about his activities. What follows is a series of raggedly-connected episodes in which Wilder simultaneously strives to raise the funds needed to cover his school costs while keeping the student body entertained; he also puts lots of effort into stealing Gwen away from her despicable boyfriend Richard (Daniel Cosgrove), an unctuous pre-med fraternity president who has his whole life–and Gwen’s–planned out decades in advance. It’s all too predictable that by the close Van will finally grow up and learn responsibility, Gwen will be in his arms, and Poppa Wilder will gain new respect for his son. In these respects “Van Wilder” doesn’t disappoint.
The young viewers who go to it expecting Farrelly Brothers-style vulgarity will get what they want, too. In the first twenty minutes alone, there’s a bit involving a blow job, a repeated shot of a nude derriere, and a prominent fart joke. Ultimately, the flick outdoes almost every predecessor in this respect, hitting a new high on the Tasteless-O-Meter. Two examples should suffice. First, there’s an extended sequence that makes the urine-in-the-beer bit in “American Pie” look positively benign in retrospect (indeed, even a hardened viewer attending the screening this reviewer caught whispered to his girlfriend that the episode, involving canine semen and some eclairs, was “really ugly”); then there’s a long gastrointestinal gag (an especially apt word in this case) that outdoes Jeff Daniels’ “Dumb and Dumber” bathroom scene by a substantial margin. Thank heaven the picture isn’t in Mike Todd’s old Smell-O-Vision process.
Unfortunately, “Wilder” doesn’t balance its crudity with a compensatory dose of charm. Reynolds is trying to provide some, one supposes, but he comes across as smug and smarmy instead; he’s a hard guy to root for. Reid makes a pallid partner for him. And Cosgrove mugs and rants so ferociously as Van’s sleazy rival that, were it not for Jason Schwartzman’s appalling turn in “Slackers,” he’d take this year’s villainous booby prize. At least a few supporting players offer a bit of solace. Kal Penn is sporadically amusing as Wilder’s supremely loyal lieutenant, although he’s given some awfully vulgar rants to spout (and one does tire of humor based on Indian-inflected English). Erik Estrada does a self-deprecating cameo. And Curtis Armstrong gets a couple of laughs as a campus security guard. (On the other hand, Matheson is wasted, and Gleason is even more overwrought than he was in “The Breakfast Club” nearly two decades back.)
“Van Wilder” is fairly smoothly made; it doesn’t have the shabby look of “Slackers,” for instance. But technical polish can’t make up for a less-than-lovable protagonist, a colorless romance and a nearly unremitting stream of grossness. One can only hope that “Van Wilder” will graduate from theatres speedily, and won’t return for an advanced degree.