Let's get this out of the way before frat guys rejoice and underage boys start sneaking out of "Casino Royale" and into "Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj." The latest entry in the National Lampoon franchise is not exactly the gross-out, sex-filled romp they're expecting it to be.
The absurdly named Taj Mahal Badalandabad , played by the Indian-American actor Kal Penn, was Ryan Reynolds's right-hand man in the original "Wilder." Here he leaves Coolidge College behind to take up studies at Britain's prestigious (and fictitious) Camford College.
Yes, the plot is analogous to the original's, with Reynolds's abs and smirk swapped for the almost-perfect comedic timing of Penn. Tricked out of joining a fraternal society of WASPs, Taj soon shacks up with a group of misfits, including the uncouth Sadie (Holly Davidson, whose vulgar lines are worth the ticket price alone). A mutual attraction develops between Taj and Charlotte, an uptight scholar played by newcomer Lauren Cohan, who could double as Britain's Meredith Grey. Typically, she's romantically linked to someone else, in this case Pipp Everett (Daniel Percival), the ringleader of the rival fraternity who just happens to be an earl.
You know the drill: Tensions mount between the two men as they compete for her affections. And naturally, Taj and his buddies must form their own group to compete against Pipp's. Last summer's "Beerfest" had a similar concept with weaker results. Here, there's more brains and substance -- rather than substance abuse -- working in the film's favor, yet still a sampling of immaturity that won't completely melt brain cells. "The Rise of Taj" is relatively pointless in the scheme of things, but refreshing in what it (mostly) doesn't resort to for laughs.
As for Penn, he'll be going places soon, with an upcoming role on TV's "24" and a sequel to 2004's ethno-comedic "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle." While most actors in schlock like this (Reynolds included) would use stoner tactics to be funny, Penn comes off deadpan. After being told he needs to settle an issue the way Pipp's British ancestors did, Penn responds matter-of-factly, "You want to exploit me economically?" A moment like this almost makes up for the scene in which a young woman is knocked unconscious by a fellow Brit's considerable endowment.
Rocco B. Colella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.