For his third 10YA re-view, Raffi Nakashian drops in on National Lampoon’s Van Wilder and takes it to task for forever ruining éclairs for him. [shakes fist] Curse you, National Lampooooooooooooon!
The title “National Lampoon” does not bode well for a film. Judging from the quality of its more recent releases, the success of Animal House and Vacation early on must have sent the team that produces these movies on a drug and alcohol binge so destructive that it caused them all permanent brain damage (if it didn’t end up actually killing them… R.I.P. John Belushi). They must have switched to cocaine in 2002, because over the last decade they’ve become extremely prolific at producing schlocky comedy targeted at pubescent boys. The last time I checked, they were releasing three or four of these things a year, littering video store shelves with badly Photoshopped covers featuring half-naked people trying to look either sexy or confused, or both.
These films typically take place on a college campus and the plot involves a guy trying to get laid and a woman shooting him down while still being a huge tease, forcing the man to experience some kind of personal growth before she finally decides to put out. They’re often highly predictable and feature gross-out gags, sex jokes, fart humor, and just enough nudity to trick you into renting it, but not enough to keep you from regretting it. Not that I know anything about that.
So it is with extreme trepidation that I revisit National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, a movie that I remember disliking passionately because of how perfectly it fits the above description. Has this movie stood the test of time? Does Van Wilder win the girl and our hearts? Why couldn’t this blog be called Nine Years Ago? I could be re-viewing Phone Booth!
There are few things I remember about Van Wilder. I remember Ryan Reynolds looking incredibly pleased with himself most of the time, I remember a horribly racist Indian stereotype character that Van Wilder uses as a personal slave, and I remember Tara Reid playing some kind of journalist. Which is not as embarrassing as her playing a scientist, but really Tara, who are you kidding?
It’s hard to take your movie seriously when your “scientist” looks like you borrowed her from the set of The Naughty Professor 7.
I do remember one more thing. There is a scene in Van Wilder that I’ve never been able to forget. If I had written this article last week, before I’d seen Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, then this scene from Van Wilder would have retained its status as the most vile, revolting, most difficult-to-watch thing I’d ever seen on screen. It’s been burned into my memory forever, and I am absolutely serious when I say that I haven’t eaten an éclair since. Yes, Van Wilder ruined éclairs for me. Do you know how goddamn delicious an éclair is? Thanks a lot, Van Wilder. It’ll probably be another ten years before I get to eat one now. Ten Years Ago, I’m sacrificing something very special for you.
You know what? I didn’t hate watching that. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is still intellectually offensive, I absolutely abhor its broad style of humor, and I would never watch it again for any reason outside of journalistic duty. However, Van Wilder is made watchable thanks to Ryan Reynolds’ portrayal of the Peter Pan-esque undergrad, who is charismatic and fun enough to carry the movie single-handedly. Almost every person around him is completely obnoxious and behaves like hormone-enraged Nickelodeon network rejects, but Reynolds’ charm and witty one-liners made it somehow bearable. (“Crazy kids with their crazy… *pause* …VD.”)
The rest of the movie is a gross patchwork of things I normally can’t stand – like bathroom humor, gratuitous violence and nudity, and stereotypes – draped over the structure of a highly predictable plot and two-dimensional characters. I was actually shocked by the number of groups and minorities that were exploited for a laugh: women, the deaf, fat people, the elderly, nerds, preppies, homosexuals, Indian, Asian, and Black people, and washed-up ‘80s actors (You realize they’re laughing at you, right Erik Estrada?). Here’s a good rule, aspiring comedy writers: please don’t make fun of deaf people. It makes me really, really sad.
Somehow, Van Wilder’s character is good enough to make me tolerate all the elements of a terrible comedy that would normally have me binging on Arrested Development for eight hours straight just to restore my faith in humanity. Ryan Reynolds was a great choice for the title character. He’s likeable, his line deliveries are really spot-on and funny, and you generally feel the desire to adopt his carefree outlook on life. He’s the coolest guy around, and every man who’s seen Van Wilder must have thought to himself how great it must be to be the handsome, witty, charismatic party animal that sleeps with random women and has legions of adoring followers. They even go out of their way to imply that he has a huge penis.
Outside of Van Wilder himself, all of the characters behave like cartoons – not just in their unabashed buffoonery, but one lady actually teleports behind Van Wilder at one point like Bugs Bunny. I understand that this is a comedy, and it’s alright to be silly at times – and if you’re someone like Edgar Wright, you can create a universe that bends the laws of reality occasionally resulting in a unique visual style that aids the comedy. If you’re National Lampoon, however, you end up with stuff like this:
If a character isn’t farting, making stupid faces, or otherwise embarrassing himself in the most juvenile attempt at broad humor, then he’s simply the most cookie-cutter, formulaic character you would expect to find in this kind of movie. Tara Reid serves as the love interest, but aside from being a journalist, has no actual character whatsoever. Why did this woman in particular, of the hundreds he could presumably choose from, steal Van Wilder’s heart? Aside from looking good in a short skirt, that question remains unanswered.
Paul Gleason, best known for his role as the hard-ass principal in The Breakfast Club, played the authority figure that clashes with Van Wilder’s free spirit. I suspect he was cast in order to evoke that sense of angry authority without having to spend the time to actually develop it in any way, because they use him to do the fake-out in the end where you think he’s going to expel Van Wilder but he ends up giving him a second chance. But he’s always hated that slacker! Remember how mean he’s always been and how he kept giving him detention? I thought he’d expel that no-good Bender for sure! I mean Van Wilder. It’s kind of like when they use R. Lee Ermy when they need a drill sergeant type, they’re just relying on the imagery and feelings you carry over from their most famous roles. Your brain can’t tell the difference.
The best supporting character has to be Van Wilder’s rival, the love interest’s douche of a preppy boyfriend. I can’t even count how many times this exact same character has been done to death in countless films, but he’s so perfectly generic and predictable that I actually skipped being cynical about it and went straight to feeling incredulously amused. Plus, he makes the most amazing faces, usually when there are bodily fluids coming out of him in one way or another.
I never thought I’d find myself laughing at a man blasting diarrhea into a waste basket… but I guess life is full of surprises.
Taj is the Indian stereotype that captured the imagination of audiences worldwide. The demand for more Taj was so overwhelming that the studio finally delivered a sequel with Taj as the title character. It was an international hit.
Are Indian people the only minority that it’s alright to make fun of anymore? I went back and watched all of the Taj scenes over again to see what was so funny about his character and why the studio felt he deserved his own sequel. He doesn’t tell any actual jokes. The joke is simply that he’s Indian. He says profane things in a thick accent while there’s sitar music playing in the background. It gave me horrible flashbacks to NBC’s Outsourced, a “comedy” that stars a white guy surrounded by Indian people that say things white people say in Indian accents. I liked that Taj changes and learns to become confident in the end, but Kal Penn is a really funny guy and it says a lot about this movie when something like Harold and Kumar is far more progressive when it comes to cultural humor.
Speaking of horribly offensive things, I actually did it – I watched the éclair scene. It’s even more disturbing than I remembered it. It’s just so over-the-top and gratuitous. I mean, who eats an éclair with that much enthusiasm? I enjoy using pictures for visual reference in my reviews, but I’ll be merciful and spare you this time. I won’t even describe it for those of you who haven’t seen the film. Let’s just move on to the conclusion.
Despite the fact that it contains almost everything I hate about college romp flicks, and is not nearly as timeless or classic as its big brother Animal House, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder features a strong central character that should inspire everyone to take life a little less seriously and live in the moment –which is what the film is really about in the end. Still – fuck you for ruining éclairs, Van Wilder. I fucking loved éclairs.