Back-To-School Month: "Van Wilder" Review

Photo Credit: Lions Gate Films

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Back-To-School Month: "Van Wilder" Review

Rating: R (strong sexual content, gross humor, language, and some drug content)
Length: 92 minutes
Release Date: Apr. 5, 2002
Directed by: Walt Becker
Genre: Comedy/Romance

Van Wilder (Ryan Reynolds) is a college student who doesn't seem to be too concerned with the fact he has spent the better part of a decade unsuccessfully pursuing a college degree. He is the big man on Campus, a title he seems to relish and is in no hurry to give up anytime soon. Together with his trusty assistant Taj (Kal Penn), he drives a golf cart across campus, regularly stealing the parking space of Professor McDoogle (Paul Gleason) and basking in the admiration of his fellow party animals.

His world is upended one day when his dad Van Sr. (Tim Matheson, reprising his role from "Animal House") decides he no longer wants to fund his son's extended schooling. Van is not keen on having to graduate or get a job, so he decides to start raising funds to pay his own way. He starts throwing parties to bring in some much-needed cash while trying to thwart the plans of his nemesis Richard (Daniel Cosgrove), a pre-med student who would like nothing more than to have Van expelled from campus. Richard will stop at nothing to reach his goal, even if it means sacrificing his relationship with pretty journalism student Gwen (Tara Reid).

Gwen—Richard's loving and trusting girlfriend—is sent by the student paper's editor to do a story about Van and his years-long matriculation at the school. At first, she is repulsed by him and plans to run an expose uncovering the seedier side of Van's antics. Over time, as she sees him save a student from attempted suicide and raise money for the cash-strapped swim team, she begins to soften up her stance, much to Richard's chagrin. This leads him to move up his plan to sabotage Van's efforts to stay in school. Hilarity and lots of gross scenes involving bodily functions and fluids ensue as Gwen has to decide which man she will choose.

The absolute best thing about "Van Wilder" is not only Reynolds but also the fact that the film helped launch what was then a fledgling movie career for the future superstar. Previously, Reynolds had been one member of the ensemble comedy "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place," which ran for four years. Despite the show's popularity and the then-groundbreaking way it let viewers choose how the show ended, it didn't get him the name recognition he enjoys today. "Van Wilder" was his first lead movie role, and since he carried the film, it got him noticed by casting directors. Some can rightfully argue that his real breakout role was his hilarious turn as Hannibal King in "Blade: Trinity," but "Van Wilder" played a huge part in getting him that role.

The other big breakout from "Van Wilder" is Penn, who hadn't yet come to prominence with the huge hit "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle." He had been toiling in television for the most part, nabbing guest starring roles on big shows like "ER" but never quite hitting the big time. "Van Wilder" got him some notice, and he soon began to take on bigger roles. He also came back to the "Van Wilder" fold in 2006, starring in "Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj," turning the film into a mini franchise of sorts.

The film will probably be compared to "Animal House" because both are set on college campuses and both have ties to the National Lampoon franchise. The fact that Matheson loosely links both films together will probably help spur the comparisons as well. However, these are really two completely different films that each reflect the time period in which they were made. While "Animal House" was practically revelatory for its time, "Van Wilder" isn't quite up to that lofty standard. Though it may not be reinventing the wheel the way its predecessor did for comedy, "Van Wilder" is certainly pushing the envelope. There are some scenes in the film that are so outlandish that they push the boundaries of what a gross-out comedy can show without being slapped with the dreaded NC-17 rating. Another very notable difference is that Van has a heart and uses it to do good for his fellow students. He actually cares about his college, whereas the archetypes in "Animal House" couldn't have cared less about any students outside of their own ilk. The heart that Van displays separates "Van Wilder" from its predecessor, and allows it to stand hilariously on its own.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5