Tuesday, March 27, 2012

From My Collection: American Pie Movie Review

Sometimes I really wish I could experience things for the first time again. There’s nothing quite like seeing a hilarious comedy in a crowded theater early in its run, especially when you are smack within the age range of the target audience. I was 21 when American Pie came out and I saw it three times that summer. Although I’m sure I was much more likely then to enjoy a gross-out comedy than now, I was by no means a sheep that followed the masses when it came to movies. I’ve always had more discerning taste.

Now thirteen years later and eleven years after the first sequel, the original gang is back together for a new installment in the series. I’m a little bit nostalgic for that time in my life when I could more readily laugh hysterically at that type of comedy so I decided to take another look at American Pie and see just how well it holds up over time and to see if I’ve aged out of it. The good news is that the things I originally thought were good about it still are. The bad news is that it’s much harder to laugh out loud after having seen it several times and probably also because seeing something amongst others aids in the overall emotional reaction.

I imagine there’s a generation of teenagers and college students now, many of whom have not seen the film and will seek it out ahead of American Reunion, to be released next month. I have little doubt that those young people will enjoy the original film immensely given the right circumstances – it needs to be seen in a group. That opening scene of Jim getting caught both parents while masturbating to a scrambled porn channel has the power to generate painful hysteria, even if the majority of people under age 25 will have little idea and zero experience of partially scrambled cable channels.

I have a hunch that there are more teens out there who self-identify with Jim, the awkward and sexually inexperienced anxiety-ridden dork, than with his three best friends – Kevin, Oz, and Finch. The film works in part because the screenplay by Adam Herz wisely makes Jim (played by Jason Biggs) the central character of the four. His friends (Thomas Ian Nicholas, Chris Klein, and Eddie Kaye Thomas, respectively) are a cross-section of high school life. Oz (a shortened nickname version of his last name) is the jock, Kevin is the popular kid, and Finch is the intellectual who studies Latin, uses SAT words, and dresses like a college professor. Their plight is rather typical of the American high school student – they’re all desperate to lose their virginity before the end of senior year. After a big party thrown by Steve Stifler – the outlier of the group played to hilarious perfection by Seann William Scott, who plays lacrosse with Oz but is something of an embarrassment to everyone for his crass and vulgar expressions – the four friends make a pact to help each other out in their quest to have sex by prom.

Kevin is trying to make it all the way home with his girlfriend Vicky (Tara Reid), but she wants the moment to be perfect. Her more world weary and cynical friend Jessica (Natasha Lyonne) encourages her to just do it because well, it’s not a space shuttle launch after all. Jim has somewhat improbably (or not) attracted the attention of Nadia, a foreign exchange student played by the much older than high school age, far too well-developed Shannon Elizabeth. A ‘tutoring’ session in Jim’s bedroom turns into another one of the most hilarious comic set pieces within the gross-out comedy genre. Oz doesn’t have any strong prospects until he joins the vocal jazz group at school to score with chicks who don’t know him. He befriends Heather (Mena Suvari), an adorable “choir girl priss.” Finch just sits back and puts mini golf while inexplicable rumors swirl regarding his sizable manhood, tattoos, and the time he kicked Stifler’s ass.

What I always liked most about the film (besides the big laughs) was the sense of character that Herz worked into his story. These guys are stock types, but he provides them with real emotions and character traits. Their relationship to each other is well defined. There’s a real sense of friendship and camaraderie between them. My opinion on that hasn’t changed even if I find it harder to laugh now. The bits are funny in theory, just no longer in execution. That’s hardly the fault of the filmmakers. Directors Chris and Paul Weitz set out to make a shock comedy. That’s exactly what they succeeded in doing. The drawback is that shock comedy generally only works for one viewing. After that, the characters have to stand the test of repeated viewings and thankfully they do.

Interestingly, the two characters who I found to be the funniest this time around were Jim’s dad (Eugene Levy) and Stifler. Mr. Levenstein never tires of drawing Jim into some of the most awkwardly uncomfortable conversations you could possibly imagine for a teenage boy to have with his father. What’s great about Levy’s performance is that he doesn’t play the man as completely clueless. He’s well aware of how embarrassing his talks are because he himself is uncomfortable. He does it because it’s the right thing to do and he only wants the best for his son. Stifler was the guy I couldn’t stand the first time around. But now his comments are the only lines I still laugh at. It’s Scott’s delivery that drives home his lines every time I hear them. He’s absolutely convincing as the immature jackass.

The final character who is also good for some decent laughs and a couple of the film’s best lines toward the end is Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) the band geek who never tells a story that doesn’t begin, “This one time at band camp…” I remember the commercials for American Pie (both the theatrical trailer and TV spots) all featured that line followed by the immortal, “I stuck a flute in my…” The commercials never revealed what was said, but the film delivers on the joke one hundred and fifty percent. That’s the kind of thing that could have been a total tease, but this movie had the balls to go for it. It’s a crude joke, but one American Pie’s finest moments.

This may be one of those movies I’ve finally put to bed. I don’t really see myself returning to it again, but that isn’t to say I don’t like it. My attitude toward it is a combination of knowing it too well and having outgrown it at this stage in my life. Better to leave it alone at its warm place in my heart without spoiling it.

*Point of interest: look for a pre Harold and Kumar John Cho as one of the MILF guys at Stifler’s party.

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