In today’s installment of Ivy On Celluloid, I’ll be taking a look at National Lampoon’s second most famous college-set comedy: 2002’s Van WIlder.
The plot of Van Wilder is summarized on IMDb as follows:
The most popular kid on campus meets a beautiful journalist who makes him realize that maybe he’s afraid to graduate.
Van Wilder was the directorial feature debut for Walt Becker, who has gone on to direct other comedies like Wild Hogs, Old Dogs, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. The screenplay was written by the duo of David Wagner and Brent Goldberg, who also penned the screenplays for The Girl Next Door and Underclassman.
The cast of the film is headlined by the charismatic Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool, Green Lantern, Detective Pikachu), along with Tara Reid (Sharknado, The Big Lebowski, Alone in the Dark), Kal Penn (House), Tim Matheson (The West Wing, Animal House), Emily Rutherfurd (Pain & Gain), Paul Gleason (Die Hard, The Breakfast Club), and Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad).
The inspiration for Van Wilder is rooted in the experiences of the comedian Bert Kreischer during his time at Florida State University, during which time he was named the “top partyer at the Number One Party School in the country” in a 1997 Rolling Stone feature. The article features a number of less-than-flattering testimonials and descriptions of Bert’s lurid behavior, and concludes that his reputation on campus over six years has made him “a figure of vaguely totemic proportions.”
Van Wilder was made on a production budget of $5 million, on which it took in a lifetime gross of just over $38 million, making it quite profitable. Ultimately, its success spawned two sequels: Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj, and Van Wilder: Freshman Year.
However, as with many comedies, the reception to Van Wilder was split between critics and audiences. Currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 6.4/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 19% from critics and 73% from audiences
To begin the higher education analysis of Van Wilder, I’d like to start with the host institution for the story: Coolidge College. This institution, as is often the case with higher ed films, is entirely fictitious. However, two real institutions served as filming locations – the University of California – Los Angeles and California State University – Northridge. UCLA was the filming location for most of the campus sequences, whereas Cal State Northridge provided the gym for the basketball scene.
The mascot/nickname for Coolidge College is the Chickadees – a group of small bird species in North America that are known for their unique vocalizations. While chickadees are not particularly imposing, many colleges have confounding mascots and nicknames – there’s the University of California – Santa Cruz Banana Slugs, the Evergreen State College Geoducks, the Coastal Carolina University Chanticleers, and the St. Louis University Billikens, among many others.
One of the first scenes in Van Wilder shows a suicide attempt, as a student jumps from an academic building on their university campus. I covered the topic of college student suicide extensively in my coverage of Dead Man On Campus, but this sequence got me curious as to if students are known to jump off of campus buildings. In 2014, a University of Pennsylvania student died after leaping from a campus parking garage. In 2017, a student at the University of Tennessee died after jumping off of a six-story parking garage on campus. Again in 2017, an exchange student at Columbia University died after jumping from a dormitory building. In 2018, a University of Louisville student died after jumping off of a parking garage across from the campus. Unfortunately, it seems that jumping from campus buildings as a means of committing suicide is not unheard of.
A handful of times throughout the film, Van refers to his major as “Leisure Studies.” This is an actual major offered at many institutions, including California State University – Long Beach, University of Mount Olive, and Southern Connecticut State University. From what I can tell, these programs typically prepare students for careers in sports management, the management of recreation centers, recreation therapy, general event management, and tourism. This notably fits Van’s displayed skill set of planning and executing large-scale events, such as athletic-based fundraisers and intricate parties.
Tara Reid’s character in the film writes for Coolidge College’s student newspaper, and takes the position very seriously – it is stated that a reporter previously in her position went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, which she aspires to herself. She and her editor hope that an expose on Van Wilder will attract critical attention to the newspaper.
I decided to look into the world of college journalism, and there are a number of annual awards for exceptional individual stories, reporters, and papers. In particular, he Associated Collegiate Press has annual awards for exceptional cartoonists, reporters, individual stories, designers, and photographers who contributed their works to college newspapers, as well as Pacemaker Awards for overall outstanding work for college publications – magazines, newspapers, yearbooks, and online news outlets. Looking through the most recent ACP award winners for individual stories, most of them are on serious social topics – food insecurity, sexual assault on campus, student mental health, the opioid epidemic, institutional corruption, and misconduct among administrators and faculty. I’m not so sure that an expose on a local party animal would yield much critical attention, going by the stories that are most lauded.
A recurring gag throughout the film revolves around a specific reserved campus parking spot for a faculty member. In my time spent on a number of different college campuses, I’ve never once seen a parking spot reserved for a specific faculty member – typically, they have a similar permit to students and staff. For instance, here is information on faculty parking from a handful of universities, which all require paid permits for zoned parking – University of Tennessee – Knoxville, University of Houston, and University of Arkansas. From what I can tell, these paid permits are pretty much the ubiquitous policy for faculty members at universities.
During the sequence where Van Wilder’s father financially cuts him off, he claims that taking seven years to complete undergraduate coursework is unacceptable:
“Seven years and no degree, you should have graduated twice by now…if you don’t have your doctorate you haven’t done enough”
Clearly, Van’s father had high expectations – he anticipated Van graduating early, not hanging around on campus for the majority of a decade. However, his thinking is indicative of a pretty significant misconception about how long it takes many students to complete coursework at four-year institutions. Institutions like the National Center for Education Statistics and National Student Clearinghouse Research Center track four-year college graduation rates primarily at the six-year mark – and those numbers aren’t perfect, regardless of institution type. Assuming Coolidge College is a four-year, private non-profit college, it is likely that (according to 2016 data) 1 in 4 enrolled students at the college won’t complete their degree in six years – Van isn’t in as much of a minority as one might assume.
One of the key supporting characters in the film is Taj – an international student at Coolidge College who appears to have not adapted well to the American college experience, particularly in regards to his initial expectations of sexual activity, issues with his personal anxiety, and general loneliness. I decided to dig around for some information on international student experiences, to see if Taj’s depiction is consistent.
There are a number of qualitative studies that have been done with the goal of understanding adjustment issues for international college students at American universities, including one from the Ohio State University that concluded that interviewed international students experienced significant problems in their coping with US education, cultural differences, and language challenges. Other studies have focused on specific groups of international students, such as African or Chinese/Taiwanese international students, and found that social challenges were common. However, I wasn’t able to find anything written about international college students and sexuality – the most I was able to dig up was an informational packet on supporting LGBT international students, which includes the following:
For LGBT international students coming to the United States from cultures where exploration of one’s sexuality or gender identity is discouraged or unsafe, this opportunity to develop and explore in a supportive environment can be revolutionary.
From what we know of Taj, this is the basis of his decision to come to college in the United States. Though he is not shown to be LGBT, his primary motivator is certainly the “exploration of…sexuality.” What is particularly interesting about this, however, is that American colleges have a uniquely sexual reputation in his mind, to the point that it influenced his enrollment decision. As far as I know, there isn’t any data on sexual activity that can be compared between universities globally to prove his assumptions correct or incorrect, but there is some data about sexual activity and colleges in the United States. While this doesn’t confirm or debunk Taj’s sexual assumptions about American colleges, it is interesting data that could be construed as support for the view of these institutions as sexual exploration centers. That said, I would wager that Taj’s view of the college experience is the result of media portrayals more than anything else – the proliferation of raunchy sexual comedies like Animal House or Van Wilder, for instance.
During the pep talk at the Coolidge College basketball game, one of the players asks Van if the victory party will feature students (“freaky honeys”) from Mount Holyoke. Mount Holyoke College is a real, notable women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts.
At one point in the film, Taj catalyzes a dormitory fire through a mishap with romance-inducing candles. It is pretty much common knowledge that candles are not allowed in dormitories for this very reason, which has inspired numerous on alternatives. Despite this, candles are still a frequent cause of fires in dorms – in just the past year, fires at Boston University, Bowdoin College, and Colby College have been attributed to errant candles use. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 87% of reported dormitory fires have explicitly involved cooking equipment, but candles are also cited as a leading cause of accidental fires in dorms.
On top of planning parties and fundraisers, Van Wilder is also shown to be a general problem solver for his fellow students. At one point, a student comes to Van complaining of having acquired an STI – something that is not treated as out of the norm by Van. Young people between 15-24, which includes traditional college students, are known to have high-rates of sexually-transmitted diseases, which poses a challenge for colleges. In 2016, the University of Oregon launched an STI Screening Clinic as part of the University Health Center, in order to provide convenient and affordable testing for students. Free distribution of condoms is a common practice at many universities as well, including condom delivery services at schools like Boston University, Brown University. and Elizabethtown College. The proliferation of STIs on college campuses has also inspired the condom company Trojan to compile a campus sexual health ranking system. The 2016 report card featured the University of Georgia and Oregon State University at the top of the list, and schools like Brigham Young University and the University of Notre Dame at the bottom.
One of the most curious sequence of events in the film involves Van Wilder’s student records. In one scene, Tara Reid’s character is handed all of Van’s disciplinary records by a university official without so much as showing identification. However, when she later goes looking for Van’s official transcript, another administrator stonewalls her, saying that divulging that information would be illegal. Ultimately, Reid’s character steals Van’s record after setting off a fire alarm. These sequences touch on the details of FERPA – the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act – which is a federal law that was passed in 1974, and applies to any education institution that receives federal funds. FERPA specifically relates to student records and privacy, and makes it clear that student disciplinary records are protected information that require the student’s consent to release, except in very specific cases:
A postsecondary institution may disclose to an alleged victim of any crime of violence or non-forcible sex offense the final results of a disciplinary proceeding conducted by the institution against the alleged perpetrator of that crime, regardless of whether the institution concluded a violation was committed. An institution may disclose to anyone—not just the victim—the final results of a disciplinary proceeding, if it determines that the student is an alleged perpetrator of a crime of violence or non-forcible sex offense, and with respect to the allegation made against him or her, the student has committed a violation of the institution’s rules or policies.
Based on these limited exceptions, it is fair to say that Tara Reid’s character should not have been given Van’s disciplinary records, and that the administrator committed a FERPA violation by doing so. However, FERPA violations are not as uncommon as you might assume: universities are in a constant struggle with administrators and professors in an attempt to keep everyone within FERPA guidelines with their communications. FERPA trainings are commonplace on college campuses, and other resources include tutorials, walkthroughs, and FAQs for staff and faculty members at universities. This is because, particularly thanks to modern technology, the scope of what is a FERPA violation is broader than you might first assume – even emailing a graded paper directly to a student is a FERPA violation, as email is not considered a secure medium for transmitting protected information. Even the fact that Reid’s character was able to steal Van’s physical records means that they were not sufficiently secured, which is another violation – typically education records are encrypted and stored electronically for this very reason (though digital vulnerabilities also exist).
Late in the film, Van Wilder is expelled from Coolidge College after a number of minors get drunk at a party he hosted. Ultimately, he decides to appeal the administration’s decision, which leads to a hearing with a disciplinary committee, shown to be made up of a combination of faculty, administrators, and students. From what I can gather, committees like this are pretty commonplace, and feature a similar makeup of faculty, staff, and students. Princeton University’s Committee on Discipline, the University of Chicago’s University-wide Student Disciplinary Committee, Bates College’s Student Conduct Board, and Morehead State University’s Student Disciplinary Committee all have similar guidelines, with some degree of variation.
As part of the ruling of the disciplinary committee, Van is required to complete his degree and graduate, “auditing” the final classes he needs to graduate. This phrasing is particularly peculiar – a class audit is specifically taking a course without receiving a grade or credit, which means it would not contribute towards the achievement of a degree. This mechanism – in which a student blows through a bunch of classes in a montage at the last minute, as a sort of gauntlet challenge – seems to pop up in other education-based movies pretty often, but as far as I can gather, it isn’t based on anything factual.
When Van Wilder first faces financial hardship following being cut off by his father, he initially earns his tuition money by pioneering a service called “topless tutors,” in which he convinced employees of a local strip joint to act as tutors with a risque incentive system. Ultimately, this service is put to an abrupt end, but it tangentially hits at a very real issue: college students turning to sex work to cover costs. While Van’s situation is not the way student sex work is usually envisioned, what Van did could fall technically under the terminology of sex work, as he is shown to be managing the logistics of the program.
In general, I think that Van Wilder is a shockingly heinous movie – it constantly trivializes serious issues like suicide and rape, expresses contemptuous misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism, and seems to relish in it all as a collective badge of honor. As a portrayal of higher education, it does touch on a handful of interesting topics, but almost always by complete accident as it shambles through stereotype-laden dialogue and caricatures with crass disregard. For the most part, the movie is a dated, nearly-unwatchable atrocity of a film with little overall value. It does speak to Reynolds’s charisma that he has gone on to the career that he has now, and was able to squeeze an ounce of charm from this desolate, hateful stone of a movie. It goes without saying that this is yet another college movie that I don’t recommend revisiting – it might be the most odious of the bunch I’ve covered so far.