- The Washington Times - Friday, April 5, 2002

''Big Trouble" qualifies as the weekend's best new comedy by default because the only competition is "National Lampoon's Van Wilder," a collegiate sex farce so degraded that it may underbid "Sorority Boys" as the year's worst of its overstocked kind.

The National Lampoon banner hasn't been a seal of hilarity since the end of the 1980s, when "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" was released. Artisan Entertainment seems to have picked up the tattered label at a fire sale in order to mislead simpletons about "Van Wilder," which attempts to celebrate a campus rascal of the same name, portrayed by the boldly nondescript Ryan Reynolds.

It is Mr. Reynolds' peculiar misfortune to appear outclassed as a charismatic scamp by the actors cast as his principal flunkies Kal Penn as an adoring, sex-starved exchange student named Taj, and his romantic rival, Teck Holmes as a smug go-getter named Richard.

Mr. Holmes has such control over a despicable and reviled caricature that he commands beyond-the-call-of-duty respect while pretending to endure formidably repulsive sight gags. How specific do you want me to be in order to warn you off "Van Wilder"? Suffice it to say that Richard is obliged to swallow more than one variety of revolting stuff, then lurch about in the throes of industrial-strength diarrhea.

Van is supposed to be the coolest fixture at apocryphal Coolidge College, which he has found so congenial that he's working on his seventh year as an undergrad. His dorm room is a miniature version of Hugh Hefner's pad. Van masterminds all events that have a hedonistic emphasis, from Topless Tutors to Naked Milers. In the course of the film, he outmanuevers an expulsion plot and disarms a suspicious coed named Gwen (Tara Reid), assigned to write a profile for the campus paper. His response to the story idea shows his supposed verbal wit to be sex-driven but not sparkling.

Ryan Reynolds' shortcomings as a suave youth are magnified by a cruel stroke of nostalgic casting: His fuming dad is played by Tim Matheson, who actually excelled at the comparable role in "National Lampoon's Animal House" almost 25 years ago. He still projects a bemused and seductive confidence. Evidently, it isn't inherited by fictional sons.

Mr. Matheson isn't the only recruit from the recent olden days. Curtis Armstrong, conspicuous as Tom Cruise's pal in "Risky Business," turns up as a campus security guard. Paul Gleason, who failed to keep track of the Saturday detention bunch in "The Breakfast Club," appears as a faculty member trying the Van Wilder expulsion case. The movie's squareness is most evident during this hearing: The fix is in to exonerate Van rather than exile him. That gets the subtext of the charade all wrong. Van Wilder is nobody's favorite, from Ryan Reynolds' opening smirk. He defies credibility as a campus smoothie and pride and joy even in a setting where the student body is overrepresented by cretins.


1/2*

TITLE: "National Lampoon's Van Wilder"

RATING: R (Frequent profanity and systematic slapstick and sexual vulgarity; occasional scatological and repulsive sight gags; fleeting nudity; allusions to drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Walt Becker. Screenplay by David Wagner and Brent Goldberg

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

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