Re-Views: National Lampoon's Van Wilder (2002)

It was ten years ago next month that Ryan Reynolds had his first starring role in a wide theatrical release. The occasion was not auspicious for the Canadian-born, TV-trained young comic, however, as National Lampoon's Van Wilder got miserable reviews and only made $21 million at the box office. Nonetheless, Reynolds and his abs went on to have an enviable career in films and in Scarlett Johansson's bed.

This film will always live in my memory because of the unique way it was marketed. One day in February 2002, a good six weeks before it was scheduled to open, Van Wilder played for free all day long at a multiplex in downtown Salt Lake City. The Winter Olympics were happening in Salt Lake at the same time, you see, and the film's distributor, Artisan Entertainment, was one of dozens of companies seeking to capitalize on all those extra eyeballs. For two whole weeks, Salt Lake City was THE place to market your product! Then the Games ended and everybody left and nobody paid attention to Utah anymore.

I lived and worked in Utah at the time, and while these Van Wilder screenings weren't the official way for critics to see the movie -- there was to be a regular press screening closer to the release date -- there was no reason not to see it now and get it out of the way. So I grabbed a couple of buddies and headed for The SLC (as nobody called it), braving what we feared would be unreasonable traffic and mayhem but which turned out to be quite manageable. Mitt Romney was in charge of the Olympics, so I guess we can give him credit for this, too. While we're at it, let's go ahead and blame him for how terrible the movie was...

What I said then: "National Lampoon's Van Wilder belongs to the genre of movies in which someone ingests something not meant to be ingested, usually a bodily fluid of some kind.... It is also the kind of movie in which the bad guy winds up with severe gastrointestinal problems and has to relieve himself in an office wastebasket.... The attachment of "National Lampoon's" to the title suggests this might be a parody of some kind, as was the case with the last several movies with that moniker. But Van Wilder is not exaggerated enough to be a parody of gross-out flicks, college flicks, or even flicks in general. It merely indulges in the worst elements of all of them.... Ryan Reynolds, who starred in TV's Two Guys and a Girl, which I never saw, would appear to have talent. He's definitely charismatic, and if he can stop delivering every line like he thinks he's Jim Carrey, not to mention get some better material, he could be good.... The movie specializes in ... non sequitur, but rarely does it succeed in creating laughs.... [It's] aimed at shocking an audience that, for heaven's sake, really can't be shocked anymore.... This movie just seems like a retread of American Pie, There's Something About Mary, and Dumb and Dumber. It brings out the occasional chuckle amidst a sea of disgust and boredom, but it is not worth wading through that sea to find those few laughs." Grade: D- [My complete review.]

I've had some good fortune with comedies in the Re-Views column before, finding things to appreciate about formerly hated films like Not Another Teen Movie, Dude, Where's My Car? and even Freddy Got Fingered. Given that Ryan Reynolds is now well-established as a funny actor who can do funny things, I thought Van Wilder might also improve upon second viewing.

The re-viewing: I was hardly the only critic in 2002 to note that while Van Wilder was bad, Reynolds had potential. This fact leaped out again when I re-watched the movie. Reynolds had the smarmy insincerity of a young Chevy Chase, and a gift for razor-sharp delivery that could render bad lines almost interesting.

Problem is, almost all the lines in Van Wilder are bad. Time has not helped this woeful screenplay, which squanders nearly every opportunity for laughs. For example, right off the bat Van holds auditions to choose his new personal assistant. The "montage of weird/bad/funny/scary auditions" is a venerable device in the comedy world, but what does Van Wilder do with it? Well, there's a male cheerleader who's too enthusiastic, a couple of super-flamey gay guys who speak only in double entendres, and a fat guy who makes fart noises with his belly. In other words, nothing.

The "National Lampoon" designation suggests Animal House, and Van Wilder is clearly modeled after the genre of rowdy comedies launched by that 1978 classic. The formula is familiar -- laid-back college slacker is pitted against crusty grown-ups and an uptight preppie -- and so are several of the supporting actors: a professor played by Paul Gleason (the principal from The Breakfast Club), Van's father played by Tim Matheson (Eric "Otter" Stratton from Animal House), and a campus cop played by Curtis Armstrong (from Risky Business, Revenge of the Nerds, and Better Off Dead). But the merry anarchy of those earlier films is filtered through the gross-out lens of American Pie (aided by the presence of Tara Reid), and all the charm and most of the humor is gone. The uptight preppie belongs to a fraternity called Delta Iota Kappa -- DIK. Get it?? In case you don't, the guy's name is Richard (Richard Bagg!!), and Van even says to him at one point, "You didn't tell me you were a DIK!" You can smell the desperation. It isn't funny.

Do I still hate this movie? I'm afraid so. Sadly, a second viewing a decade later did nothing to improve the film's lazy, haphazard screenplay. The template is viable, as are several of the stars (don't forget Kal Penn!). But this particular entry in the genre is as bad now as it was in 2002. Grade: D-