"National Lampoon" first entered the national consciousness in the early '70s when a group of Harvard graduates began publishing a satirical magazine that skewered culture and politics. Before the end of the decade, the small publication had become a brand -- one that branched out beyond print media with the theatrical release of the uber-classic frat-boy epic, 'Animal House.' Audiences embraced the film's edgy comedy and helped give birth to an entire subgenre of gross-out flicks that have popped up in theaters ever since.
In the years following their reign of '80s comedy, National Lampoon arguably lost its touch -- at least in theaters, where the brand quickly became synonymous with straight-to-video mediocrity. Twenty-five years after 'Animal House' hit the scene, the floundering brand agreed to attach its name to a flick about another group of college misfits, 2002's 'National Lampoon's Van Wilder.' Unfortunately, 'Van Wilder' isn't just the blatant bastard-child of 'Animal House,' it's an exhausting mix of desperate hope and cheap thrills that doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence.
The film itself tells the tale of a self-proclaimed slacker named -- you guessed it -- Van Wilder (Ryan Reynolds), a seventh year college legend who refuses to graduate. And why should he? He has a girl around every corner, he has the security staff in his pocket, and he selects his own personal assistant from a long list of applicants each year (his current assistant is a foreign exchange student played by Kal Penn). But as Van prepares to start a new semester, his world is turned upside down when his father (Tim Matheson) cuts off his tuition payments and forces him to fend for himself. Van must now concoct a plan to graduate, pay for his education, and solidify his legacy at the college.
Along the way, he catches the attention of Gwen (four-time Oscar winner Tara Reid), a reluctant journalism major who's assigned to write a story on the aging campus demigod. In the course of attempting to win her heart, Van wins the scorn of her boyfriend, a fraternity leader named Richard (Daniel Cosgrove). The conflict between Richard and Van sets the stage for a veritable clash of the titans as each man tries to best the other with a series of increasingly disgusting pranks.
Much like the recently-reviewed 'Waiting' (a more recent gross-out comedy starring Reynolds), 'Van Wilder' suffers under the weight of its unfocused plot and undernourished characters. The film is rarely more than just an excuse to jump from one ludicrous prank to the next and its visual gags rely far too heavily on unbelievably extreme behavior. I know this is par for the course with a film like 'Van Wilder,' but the result is a comedy with no staying power or replayability.
Even more bothersome is the film's obvious desire to stand out from the crowd. Then-first-time director Walt Becker (he recently helmed the mega-hit 'Wild Hogs') is clearly determined to outdo all who came before him, and his focus seems to be almost entirely on pushing the genre boundaries farther than they've been pushed before. I don't mind boundary stretching (after all, it's the method that keeps cinema fresh and funny), but neither Becker nor the film's screenwriters (Brent Goldberg and David Wagner) take any care with the material left at the core of the story. If we I turn our attention away from the outrageous sophomoric laughs for just a second, there simply isn't anything remaining to make us care about the characters.
Making matters worse, as the film's main protagonist, Van comes off as arrogant and abusive, robbing the film of the more universally relatable themes of others in its brethren. In comedies like 'The 40 Year Old Virgin' and 'Knocked Up,' the laughs are contagious despite the over-exaggerated content because the audience finds itself rooting for the pursuits of the main character. 'Van Wilder' is about an obnoxious rich kid who's been given everything on a silver platter -- when that silver platter is removed, he simply reinvents himself and comes out on top because everything continues to miraculously work in his favor.
Granted, fans of films like 'Van Wilder' aren't likely to care about such analyses, and will likely find more to enjoy here than I did. Don't get me wrong -- I love to laugh, but I tend to gravitate to films that surprise me rather than pandering to a mindless series of lowest-common-denominator set-ups. While 'Van Wilder' attempts to replicate the success 'Animal House' has enjoyed over the decades, it takes more than a frat house and a college loser to attain that sort of enduring cinematic cult following.
(Note that this version of 'Van Wilder' features the "Unrated" cut of the film, which includes an additional two minutes of raunchy scene snippets.)
While I knew I wasn't a fan of a film itself, I at least hoped that the visuals on this Blu-ray disc would still be a high-def treat -- unfortunately, 'Van Wilder' is so dull and flat that there were times when I felt as if I were watching the film on standard-def DVD. Although this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer certainly has fewer source noise issues than its DVD counterpart (even though occasional instances of light artifacting remain), it suffers from poor color saturation, textureless fleshtones, and an image that lacks depth. Making matter worse, unimpressive black levels and a spiky grain field flatten objects against the background and rob the picture of any potential impact.
To top it all off, fine object detail doesn't pop off the screen and many of the background elements are just ugly and soft. Van's room should be a high definition gauntlet of details, but just watch any scene featuring set in his dorm -- even objects in the foreground aren't crisp and (especially compared to other high-def releases) the overall sharpness is surprisingly dreary. While the colors are more vivid, this video presentation reminded me of the bizarrely muted Blu-ray transfer of 'Talladega Nights.'
In the end, there was enough fundamental evidence to convince me that the transfer was an upgrade from the standard DVD, but the minor differences aren't likely to be appreciated even by the film's most hardcore fans.
While it may suffer from a lackluster video transfer, the audio on this Blu-ray edition of 'Van Wilder' is surprisingly strong. In fact, the Uncompressed PCM 7.1 surround mix (48 kHz/16-Bit/6.1 Mbps) is so essentially high-def, that I found myself even more disappointed with the visual presentation. Still, I'm certainly not going to knock the audio quality for this disparity.
The PCM track features well-prioritized dialogue that's nicely spread across the front channels. Pans are natural and the subwoofer keeps itself busy, adding a welcome weight to the audio. I was happy to hear the rear channels engaged throughout the film as well -- they may be limited to ambient noise, chaotic support, and soundtrack presence, but they're still used to good effect. Every time Van is out on the campus, you can distinctly hear distant conversations and other environmental effects that allow you to really immerse yourself in the soundfield.
The only downside to the audio is that 'Van Wilder' remains a dialogue-driven comedy and, as such, doesn't pack the punch of other films in high-def. To be sure, this one suitably replicates the theatrical experience, but it's not going to turn heads with its prowess.
(Note that this Blu-ray edition of 'Van Wilder' also includes a thinner 640 kbps Dolby Digital EX 5.1 surround track that more closely resembles the standard Dolby mix on the DVD. It tends to sound more hollow and is missing the ambient presence of the PCM track.)
'Van Wilder' hits Blu-ray with all of the primary special features that appeared in the 2006 "Van Gone Wilder" 2-disc DVD, and it's quite an overstuffed (if still inconsequential) package. The only missing elements are some of the smaller supplements from the original DVD released in 2002 (an art gallery, a poster gallery, TV spots, cast and crew bios, and production notes).
First up is a one-joke commentary that doesn't include anyone from the cast or crew -- instead, we're treated to a "Drunken Idiot Kommentary" that quite literally records a group of fans chatting overtop the film as they drink and lose touch with reality.
Next up is a fluffy making-of featurette called "Party Legends, Pledges, and Bullies" (16 minutes) that doesn't spend any time exploring the film's roots or inspirations. Instead, it's mostly an excuse to praise the film and show off finished clips, including interviews with the primary players and quick beats of behind-the-scenes footage.
Continuing this less-is-more approach to supplemental materials are a series of skippable features like the "Ultimate College Party Guide" (5 minutes) in which one of the frat boys describes the ways Van plans a party, a text-based segment including quotes from the movie called "Write That Down," and an interactive quiz on "Testicles of the Animal Kingdom." I found each of these groan-inducing and -- worse -- boring.
The best content (relatively speaking) comes in the form of footage left on the cutting room floor. A collection of eight "Deleted Scenes" (9 minutes) are amusing, a group of "Outtakes" (12 minutes) are typical but fun, and an extended look at the climactic prank lovingly referred to as "Gwen-ezuma's Revenge" (8 minutes) is sure to send fans of the original scenes into fits of laughter.
Finally, a collection of promotional materials include a group of "Burly TV Specials" -- a movie review show called "Movie Junkie" (15 minutes), a cooking show called "Half Baked" (13 minutes), and a dating show called "Imposter" (17 minutes). Also included is a Comedy Central "Reel Comedy" special (21 minutes) and Sugarcult's music video for "Bouncing Off the Walls" (3 minutes). None of the above offer any real insight into the making-of the film, and are for completists only.
(Note that all of the video features listed above are presented in 480i/p only.)
'National Lampoon's Van Wilder' isn't the sort of film critics rave about, and true to form I personally can't stand its heavy-handed, lumbering approach to getting laughs. Still, while the film certainly has its fans, even die-hards are likely to have a tough time with this Blu-ray release. The video transfer is flat and dull, and the supplements (while plentiful) are exceedingly superficial and repetitive. The disc's one bright spot is a solid 7.1 PCM audio mix, but I don't think it adds enough value to save this high-def train wreck.