More than a month ago, the word had been out that MGM, the studio behind the campus comedy National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj had lost faith in the film. The movie had elevated sidekick Kal Penn from the first Van Wilder to the lead.
Kal Penn, of course, is an actor of promise and has been steadily enlarging his profile in the last few years. But the studio felt his new movie was so awful that it saw no point in holding a press screening for it. Of course, MGM was hoping that since the bad reviews could appear only on Saturday, they could not prevent a sizeable number of gullible audiences flocking to the film on Friday.
The studio's fears came true -- reviews on Saturday called the film a mirthless and witless comedy.
The film, which bills Kal Penn as one of its executive producers, also bombed at the box-office. At number 10 on the North American box office chart with a meager $2.3 million gross, the low budget film could break even only if its video and DVD sales are decent.
The first Van Wilder, which introduced the character of Taj Mahal Badalandabad, was directed by Walt Becker. Becker was replaced by Mort Nathan in the new film. The first film, which opened in 2002, grossed a healthy $21 million.
When it comes to campus comedies, the opinions of the critics mostly do not matter. But in the case of The Rise of Taj, the opinion of the critics and the public seemed to coincide.
While the Los Angeles Times declared that 'it was refreshing to see an Indian American protagonist in this kind of flick,' it also wrote that the bad news came 'in the form of credited writer David Drew Gallagher, whose knuckles must be blanched from clutching the college-movie playbook, and director Mort Nathan (Boat Trip), who catches neither the tone nor the spirit of the original.'
Given the popularity of campus comedies, any film, even a low budget film such as The Rise of Taj -- that cost an estimated $10 million -- is expected to make $10 million in its opening week.
In the new film, Taj, who was a personal assistant to the legendary campus figure Van Wilder in the previous film, leaves his American campus for Camford University near London, where he looks to continue his education, and be a teaching assistant. Little does he know that he will have to fight for his survival and deal with a raft of hateful characters who do not like his looks or hidden smartness.
The producers of the second Van Wilder film decided to enhance Penn's role and cast him in the lead following the popularity of his 2004 cult hit Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. The outrageous comedy grossed about $18 million. But it became a real hit on DVD, grossing over $50 million. And made Kal Penn a star in his own right.
Besides, The Rise of Taj will not boost Kal Penn's career that zoomed because of Superman Returns. Though he hardly had a speaking line in Superman Returns, he received good attention as one of its villains. The 2006 film, which grossed $400 million worldwide, was called an underachiever given its $150 million budget. And yet, depending on the final revenues from video and DVD, there could be a sequel and Penn may find himself in it.
Meanwhile, he will have to wait for more than a year to boost his mass appeal through Harold and Kumar Go to Amsterdam. In between there will be Mira Nair's The Namesake but that film, at best, could be an arthouse hit.
Given the crush of holiday movies, and the critically acclaimed comedy Borat still going strong -- it made a total of $116 million -- the chances of The Rise of Taj improving its box office stand are slim.
The chart was led by Happy Feet, which, in its third weekend, grossed $15 million, taking its total to $121 million. It was followed by the James Bond adventure Casino Royale, which made $115 million in 10 days. In the international arena, the Bond movie has grossed $185 million. With a final $500 million expected worldwide, it could become the highest grossing bond film ever, followed by Die Another Day with its $465 million four years ago.