National Lampoon’s Van Wilder
2002, R, 95 min. Directed by Walt Becker. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Tara Reid, Kal Penn, Tim Matheson, Kim Smith, Daniel Cosgrove, Teck Holmes.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 5, 2002
It's a measure of Ryan Reynolds' not inconsiderable charm that this Animal House knockoff works as well as it does. As the titular college student drifting through his seventh collegiate year, he's the go-to party guy, the scammer, the BMOC with all the angles and the wherewithal to play them. Reynolds is best known for his work on ABC's Two Guys and a Girl, and he uses the same easy smile and laconic grace here; he's the anti-frat, a slick, know-it-all slacker with just enough good fortune to make the grade and keep out of the dean's way. There are moments in Van Wilder -- specifically the opening gag, in which Reynolds tries to comfort a depressed freshman about to end it all -- in which Reynolds is clearly channeling the ghost of Seventies-era Chevy Chase. (Chase may still be alive, but the fluid comic timing that made his Gerald Ford pratfalls so memorable has been pushing up daisies for going on 20 years.) He's got that same goofball panache; like Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, you just know this guy is going to walk away from life without a scratch on him. Reynolds is terrific, but he's trapped in a film that suffers from a massive identity crisis. It's not lewd enough to qualify as a gross-out comedy (although an endless shtick involving a bulldog with massive, pendulous testes is pretty godawful) and it's nowhere near as smart as Animal House -- or even the underappreciated PCU. It falls flat because it falls somewhere in the middle -- unlike Van Wilder's beloved canine compadre, the film has no balls. It's not for lack of trying, I suppose. The meandering plot has Van Wilder cut off by dad Tim Matheson (Animal House's Otter) who feels that seven years of tuition payments is enough. Van Wilder's so enamored of his position as campus king of cool, however, that he's desperate to stay where he is. There's a briefly touched-upon subplot that makes a lame attempt to explain this clown's fear of the real world outside of school, but it's gone as soon as it crops up. It's too much to ask for a Freudian breakdown of the character's obvious neuroses -- this is a National Lampoon film, after all -- but I can't help thinking it would have been a comic goldmine. When campus newspaper reporter Gwen (Reid) is instructed by her editor to “get the story no one else can” -- i.e., the Van Wilder story -- she's initially repelled by the man she mistakes as a common sleaze. She's wrong, of course: Van Wilder's a teddy bear masquerading as a wolf, and soon enough she's ready to dump her fratboy jerk of a steady and take a walk on the Wilder side. Director Becker knows how to set up a gag well enough, and there can never be enough Tara Reid films in the world (her scruffy voice and vertiginous eyes are a deadly, dreamy combo), but Van Wilder is all-in-all a fairly listless affair. The laugh-out-loud jokery is in short supply, and Reynolds and Reid's kicky charm only goes so far. Bluto Blutarsky, we miss you.