Have campus comedies really reached the point where fashionable, ante-upping gross-out gags are obligatory? I mean, do we really need a movie in which bulldog semen is served in pastries to unsuspecting frat jerks?
I ask only because "National Lampoon's Van Wilder" has such hilariously droll dialogue and such a witty, charismatic lead in Ryan Reynolds (of TV's "Two Guys and a Girl") that it's just bursting with untapped crafty comic energy that has been redirected toward the lowest of the lowbrow.
Reynolds emits an aura of smarmy charm in the title role of consummate collegiate slacker Van Wilder who, after seven years as Big Man On Campus and $40,000 in tuition, has been cut off by his fed-up father (played by Tim Matheson in one of the flick's many nods to "Animal House").
Desperately seeking funds to continue his mock education, Van tests the waters of small business, starting a pay-to-study "topless tutors" program and offering his services as a "party liaison," souping up even the nerdiest frat parties until they're the hottest tickets on campus.
"Her name is Naomi. That's 'I moan' backwards," Van winks to a nervous nerd while introducing him to a beautiful babe that wouldn't have been caught dead at his party without our hero's help.
Reynolds embraces his character's smart-aleck shallowness with such imaginative gusto it renders the guy paradoxically congenial from his very first scene, in which he flabbergasts a suicidal freshman by joining the kid on the roof of his dorm, completely naked from the waist down.
These kinds of antics draw the attention of a sexy but self-serious school newspaper reporter (Tara Reid) assigned to write a story about Van over her protests that she'd rather be tackling politics or other weight issues. Reid ("American Pie," "Josie and the Pussycats") has zero credibility as a brain -- especially since she's also one of those movie girls too stupid to realize her arrogant, negligent, frat-brother boyfriend is Mr. Wrong. But she does make an ideal object of desire for Van, who treats her journalistic pursuit of him as if she's on the make.
"Are you stalking me?" he grins Puckishly after bumping into her unexpectedly. "'Cause that would be super!"
When "Van Wilder" sticks to its wits, its comedy is unstoppable. I must have written down 15 lines of sharply scintillating dialogue even funnier than those above in my screening notes. The story frequently goes off in refreshingly bizarre directions, and Reynolds' irreverence is downright irresistible.
But for every shining moment of cagey, capricious comedy, there's an equal and opposite moment of acute unoriginality or beyond-belief bad taste.
Save the title character, every speaking part in this picture is a stereotype or tiresome cliché. Van recruits a desperate virgin Indian exchange student (Kal Penn) as a personal assistant, and every time he's on screen, sitar music plays on the soundtrack. Van's arch-nemesis is a sniveling preppie (What is this? 1981?) who leads his fraternity in secret hazing rituals that require silly ceremonial robes. Of course, there's a crusty professor out to flunk Van at all costs (played by Paul Gleason from "The Breakfast Club").
And obviously director Walter Becker (whose debut, "Buying the Cow," has been suspiciously sitting on a shelf for two years) felt the need to lower "Van Wilder" to compete with such squalid bottom-feeding flicks as "Tomcats" (testicle-eating), "American Pie 2" (urine shower) and "Freddy Got Fingered" (where do I start?).
The sad thing is, had he and screenwriters Brent Goldberg and David T. Wagner directed that same creative spark toward fixing up the lamer elements of the script, this truly could have been the 21st Century successor to "Animal House" that the producers were clearly dreaming of.
If you can stomach the stupider elements of the story and soldier through the scenes of stomach-turning schtick, there absolutely is entertainment to be had here. It's just a pity the people who made this picture couldn't see its higher potential.