Have you ever felt the need to do something completely different after finishing a particularly onerous task? That is how I felt after reviewing the entire Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to date. Boy, let me tell you, I will be waiting on tenterhooks for the next installment! Since Ryan Reynolds seems almost as ubiquitous these days as air, I thought I would go back to the film that established many of the tropes by which he is known. This is, of course, mainly his sarcasm. Though Reynolds had been in a variety of shows and smaller movies, it is in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002) where his verbal barbs first became most noticeable. Full disclosure: I do not condone the sort of juvenile humor, innuendo, and overt sexuality that makes up the bulk of the content in the film. Still, we all grow up some time, and that is at least a small part of the denouement.
The commencement of National Lampoon’s Van Wilder introduces the title character (Ryan Reynolds), perhaps the most famous student at Coolidge College. Such is his popularity that he is in need of a personal assistant to organize his chaotic social life. After several interviews, he lands on the particularly eager Taj Mahal Badalandabad (Kal Penn). Taj comes aboard at a critical moment as the school is threatening to kick him out for not having attending classes in several semesters (this being his seventh senior year), and his father, Vance Wilder Sr. (Tim Matheson), cutting off his funds. Luckily, it is at this time that Van is approached by a fraternity to host a party for them. More importantly, they agree to pay thousands of dollars. It also brings him into contact with Gwen Pearson (Tara Reid), who writes for the school newspaper, and reported on the success of the soiree. This garners Van an extra level of notoriety. With his extension approved thanks to an, ahem, agreement with administration, he now has the funding he needs to perpetually stay at school. Unfortunately, the interest that Gwen has in Van draws the ire of her boyfriend, Richard “Dick” Bragg (Daniel Cosgrove). Though Gwen does not seem to take Van seriously, it is enough for a prank war to break out between Dick and Van. A lot of this is gross, so it need not be enumerated. Of more interest, though, is the fact that eventually the attention that Gwen gives Van rubs him the wrong way. Seeing potential in him that he perhaps does not see in himself, she looks up his academic record and finds that he is only a few credits shy of graduating. When he finds out, he cuts off ties. Still, Dick has not stopped trying to get even. His worst trick is sneaking underaged kids into one of the parties hosted by Van. Dick then arranges for the kids to receive alcohol and to have the police called on the party, which leads to Van’s arrest. The school gets wind of this development and moves to expel Van. It is Taj that convinces Van to put up a fight instead of meekly leaving school. His defense involves him pleading that instead of just kicking him out, that they allow him to sit his exams and graduate. The deciding vote comes down to Professor McDougal (Paul Gleason), a faculty member with whom Van had many struggles. Professor McDougal puts in his lot with Van, much to the surprise of those gathered, because he sees the same traits that Gwen does. He explains this to Van, which is a revelation to the student because he thought there was bad blood between them based on an indiscretion he had with the professor’s daughter. Also, Gwen decides to get revenge on Dick for Van. With her former boyfriend about to take his tests to get into medical school, she spikes his morning protein shake with a laxative. In the middle of answering questions that he cannot get up from or risk failure, the need to use the facilities becomes so painful that he wildly guesses the rest of the answers so he can leave. Then, on the way to the bathroom, he is stopped by representatives from his hoped for medical school. During their meeting, the urge becomes too much and he disgraces himself by using a trash can to do his duty. Not only has Van completely triumphed over Dick, but he has passed his courses. Doing so earns him the approval of his father, who reunites with him shortly after receiving word of the success. It also brings back Gwen, and they reconcile, helped by the glowing article she writes about him in the final issue of the newspaper that year.
There are many awful layers to get through in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder before you come to anything of merit from a Catholic perspective. There is too much unrepentant nudity and other forms of carousing to give it much merit. Still, even the leader of licentiousness, Van, comes to the realization that his lifestyle cannot go on forever. I would not call him repentant by the end of the movie. It is clear that the film still suggests that partying is a virtue, but such is the lot of comedies. What is interesting, though, is the process that he goes through in order to understand that he must move on in life. This may sound like the acme of foolishness, but there are some comparisons to be made to Job in the Bible. Please, hear me out on this matter. Job had everything a person could ever want. Then, God tested him. While Van goes through his own trials, they are not nearly on par with Job. Van does not lose all his family and property. After all, this is not a tragedy. Where the comparison becomes a little more apt is in the unexpected prize they each gain in the end. Job not only has his life restored to him, but he has the added blessing of having gained a new insight into what God has waiting for those who are faithful. Still, his road is not without the temptation to give in to his misery. Van has the same moment where he thinks all is lost. Thanks to a little encouragement, he is able to put in a good effort and graduate. At the beginning of the film, you would not have expected this character to graduate and earn the respect of authority figures and co-eds alike. It is faith in something better that leads to extraordinary things.
And that is about the nicest thing one can say about National Lampoon’s Van Wilder. When I was young and immature, I used to laugh at the juvenile jokes contained therein. I am sure the same thing could be said for Ryan Reynolds. Sometimes it is good to look back and take stock of where we have been in order to appreciate where we are now. This applies to many areas of our lives. That is not meant to be a recommendation to see this movie. It is rated R for good reason. At least you know now why you should avoid it.
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