A pack of hungry frat brothers chows down on eclairs filled with canine semen; later, a prospective med school candidate defecates into a wastebasket in plain view of his interview committee. These are the big gags of “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder” — the first theatrical release in nearly a decade to feature the possessory credit of the famous humor magazine — and if they sound familiar, that’s because there’s nary a comic idea in “Van Wilder” that isn’t ripped off from a recent Farrelly brothers movie. But that doesn’t stop “Van Wilder” from being very funny, provided you’re not easily offended. While it’s onscreen, pic’s strangely likable and only about half as puerile as the average MTV reality series. Theatrical prospects are modest for this niche item, but a long life as a video rental (particularly at keg parties) seems assured.
Directed by Walt Becker (whose debut feature, “Buying the Cow,” remains on the shelf after the bankruptcy of Destination Films), “Van Wilder” is patterned after the raunchy campus-set romps that flourished throughout the 1980s, and while pic won’t have audiences clamoring for the reissue of “Revenge of the Nerds,” it is, as a revival of the form, preferable to either part of the tame “American Pie” franchise.
Unlike the “Pie” pics, “Van Wilder” doesn’t dally around with faux character-building scenes and treacly sentiment; it’s much more connected to what its target audience really wants to see. It cuts to the chase, which in this case is a parade of scatological jokes and bodacious, bare-breasted babes. But there’s a fundamental innocence to the film’s hijinx — “Van Wilder” is a titillation, a tease — and the characters here aren’t nearly as hung-up about validating themselves through sex as the characters in most of today’s teen-skewing pics.
Pic’s eponymous protagonist (Ryan Reynolds) is a jocular prankster who’s spent most of his seven years at fictional Coolidge College wreaking havoc on stuffy professors and throwing killer parties. Van Wilder is the guy that every university seems to have one of — the big man on campus who has managed to turn college life into a vocation, until Van’s corporate exec dad (Tim Matheson, who played Otter in “National Lampoon’s Animal House”) discovers how much of his money is being siphoned away by Van’s “education,” and decides to cut Van off.
As a movie, “Van Wilder” doesn’t possess significantly greater ambition than its protagonist. It never builds on its initial concept in any interesting way, despite the obvious potential for an amusing satire on the way colleges make as many people afraid of the real world as they prepare for it. There’s a sketch of a plot here, about how the resourceful Van must find a way to get himself back on easy street while fending off the charms of the ace school newspaper reporter (Tara Reid, of the “American Pie” movies) seeking to write a scandalous expose. And it’s easy to see pic’s trajectory from several miles away — the way that Van will come to learn the value of his potential, stop slacking about and live happily ever after.
But mostly the film shifts its contrivances to the background and coasts comfortably on its forthright outrageousness and on the chemistry of its two leads. The baby-faced Reynolds is a natural fit for this latter-day Ferris Bueller role; he sells you on his sleek confidence, so that when he walks through the women’s locker room saying “Hi” to everyone and nobody bats an eye, you believe this guy could really pull that off.
And Reid, who looks stunning in a part that requires little else, still manages to make her girl Friday routine a cut above. Neither thesp has much to do here, but together they have a certain spark, and they might be even more winning in a pic where they didn’t have to fend off so many projected bodily fluids.