This movie is a relic of a different time (and not just the time it was made). After “American Pie” and “Clueless” made the teen comedy big business again in the late 90s, everyone rushed on the bandwagon – “Ten Things I Hate About You”, “She’s All That”, “Not Another Teen Movie”, “The Faculty”, and “Bring It On”, among many many others; a bandwagon that had pretty much lost all its wheels by the time the third “American Pie” movie came around in 2003.
“Van Wilder: Party Liaison” was released around the end of that cycle, and although it did decently at the box office (enough to score a couple of sequels) it divides opinion when you ask about it these days. How well has it aged?
Probably slightly less well than its spiritual forebear, 1986’s “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, if we’re being honest. Ryan Reynolds (coming off a starring role in “Two Guys, A Girl And A Pizza Place”) is Van, the sort of ultimate good guy / party animal. Although he likes a drink and a smoke, he treats women with respect, helps out nerds and generally acts as the glue that keeps his whole college together. He’s so popular that there’s a queue round the block to become his new assistant; this is just a preamble to one of those “look at this wacky bunch of characters” quick hit scenes so beloved of cheerleader tryout movies.
So far, we’ve had a completely ordinary, brightly lit, fun, college comedy introduction. But then, we meet the people who want to be his assistant – one of them is a beautiful woman who has a very deep voice and is apparently transexual; another is a pair of gay guys who spout endless “we’ll work very HARD for you” style lines. These stereotypes would have been a little dodgy in the 80s and are just appalling to our 2017 eyes; one presumes that Reynolds, who’s apparently never seen the finished product, would be happy to trim this scene from any future reissue (it’s a double shame, because Erik Estrada is hilarious as one of the other applicants).
The winner is Taj, played by Kal Penn, who’s a stereotype of an Indian foreign exchange student, simply put. He’s fine, though, because he very quickly informs us of his desire to perform cunnilingus on as many American women as will let him. Anyway.
The plot is, Van has been there for seven years, although he doesn’t seem stupid, and his Dad finally remembers both that he has a son, and that he’s paying for his son’s continuing holiday from reality. The finances are cut off, and he has to pay his own way – he achieves this by taking his natural gift as a party organiser and monetising it. At the same time, the school newspaper decides to do a story on their most popular student, and asks Gwen (Tara Reid) to do it. They dislike each other at first! What could possibly happen? Factor in Gwen’s boyfriend, the super-uptight premature ejaculating medical student, who hates Van with a passion, and you’ve got yourself a movie.
Almost nothing will come as a surprise to you if you’ve seen any movies in this genre. Some of the jokes are excellent, some are older than I am, some are both. Perhaps I’m just jaded, but when they trotted out the real gross-out stuff, like collecting the semen from a dog’s grotesquely swollen testicles and replacing the cream in a donut with it, my response was a small shrug. That’s probably the grossest of the lot, but I’ll give them credit for really trying.
Some of the minor characters are excellent – the psychotically devoted sorority girl, and Aaron Paul (listed in the credits solely as “Wasted Guy”) especially. But some of the major characters – Gwen, most notably – are terrible. Tara Reid’s continued fame in the movies of the time is a puzzler to me, as she has zero range and seems unable to deliver a line in anything other than a monotone.
Ultimately, though, the movie is too sweet. The sole real villain ends up the movie taking a shit in a rubbish bin in front of the people who’ll decide on his career, and everyone else just has a good time. Van is far too nice a person, I think – if you compare him to Ferris Bueller, he seemed to get his following based on how cool he was, not what he did for other students (there’s no indication he genuinely cares for anyone other than Cameron and Sloane). Wilder is far less cool and far more helpful, to the point you’re occasionally not sure why all these people love him so much. No-one reacts to him with a “why the hell are you still in college?” sense of sadness, which would have been interesting to explore, even briefly – he comes to that conclusion himself anyway.
There’s a little stunt casting too, in an era before that became a commonplace – “Animal House” star Tim Matheson plays Van’s dad, Paul Gleason from “The Breakfast Club” is his economic teacher, Curtis Armstrong from “Better Off Dead” is campus security, Edie McClurg from “Ferris Bueller” is a campus tour guide; as well, future TV stars Simon Helberg and Sophia Bush pop up in tiny early roles.
This is the directorial debut of Walt Becker, who’d go on to make all-time flop “Old Dogs” in 2009 and not a lot else; he’s fine here though, with that bright colourful vibe captured pretty well. It is, perhaps, a movie you needed to see when it came out, and doesn’t fill me with a great deal of enthusiasm for the Kal Penn-starring sequel, or the disappeared-without-a-trace third movie, “Van Wilder: Freshman Year”, starring no-one you’ve ever heard of. Still, it’s perhaps not as bad as I made out, and Reynolds is great fun to watch, even when the material and people around him aren’t quite up to scratch.
Rating: thumbs in the middle