American Reunion

Posted on April 5, 2012 at 6:00 pm

The first indication of a problem with this fourth in the series that began with the ground-breaking (and pastry-breaking) “American Pie” is that stars Jason Biggs and Seann William Scott are listed as co-producers.   Very few actors understand their characters well enough to avoid shifting them from what appeals to audiences to what appeals to the actors’ egos.

Take Stifler, for example.  One of the zestiest aspects of the first three films was this character, played by Scott.  He was the usual broad comedy figure of pure id, the literal spokesman for the hormonal longings of the four friends whose pledge to lose their virginity by graduation provided the storyline for the 1999 original.  But he served another function as well.  While our heroes were struggling with their romantic and sex lives, it was Stifler who bore the brunt of the most outrageous gags (in both senses of the word).  In order for the movies to work within their own construct, it is important for the other characters and the audience to like Stifler enough for him to be an instigator (urging the other guys on, throwing wild parties) but not enough for us to feel that it is unjust or wrong when awful things happen to him.  Now, presumably at the instigation of producer Scott, Stifler does not suffer any comic consequences and by the end of the film is supposed to be sort of likeable.  That is one of several things this movie gets wrong.

“American Pie” was a comedy about four teenage boys who were desperate to have sex partly because they were teenage boys and partly because of their pride — they were spurred on by a classmate who claimed to have had sex and they did not want him to be ahead of them.  Jim (Jason Biggs) was the character whose role has been endless excruciating humiliation — in the film not only did his father offer sincere but painfully boundary-intruding advice but his extremely embarrassing attempt at having sex with a pretty exchange student was broadcast on the then-novel internet.  Oz (rangy Chris Klein) and Kevin (doe-eyed Thomas Ian Nicholas) had some relationship problems to sort out and Finch (ethereal Eddie Kaye Thomas) was looking for something a little different.  What made the film so revolutionary was in part how explicit and raunchy the humor was but more the portrayal of the girls in the film as sexually confident and as people, not just objects to inspire lust and fear.

Teen sex comedies are fun because that stage of life is so sharply exaggerated.  All of the usual adult concerns about sex and love seem insurmountably (so to speak) perplexing and more dire when you are experiencing them for the first time and seeing our worst fears realized on screen is cathartic, reassuring, and funny.  But they are in their 30’s now, and that is different.

The movie opens with a bouncing, squeaking bed and a song from R. Kelly.   Jim and his “This one time? At band camp?” wife Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) are indeed in bed, but he is on his laptop and she is rocking their 2-year-old.  Yes, just like teenagers, parents are also sex-deprived.  But as we learned in “Hall Pass” and “The Change-Up,” that does not make it funny.

Everyone comes back home to Michigan for their 13th high school reunion.   Why the 13th?  They sort of spaced on the 10th, or, in other words, three years ago the cast members still thought they had other options.

It begins as Jim, once again, has a painful experience when his attempt at a solo sex act is interrupted.  This time, instead of his father, it is his toddler.  He smashes a sensitive part of his body in the laptop and goes to the bathroom to get a band-aid only to find Michelle in the bathtub, also enjoying a solo sex act.  Embarrassment all around.   Jim’s squashed sensitive part will be on display shortly, when he finds himself half-naked in the kitchen and tries to cover himself with what turns out to be a glass lid.   He will also have to deliver a drunk, naked 18-year-old to her bed without her parents or Michelle seeing them.  And he will appear in front of a large group of people in bondage gear that looks like goth lederhosen.  Meanwhile Oz and Kevin meet up with their high school loves (Tara Reid and Mena Suvari), making them re-think their current relationships.  And Finch arrives on a snazzy motorcycle with tales of exotic adventures that have everyone else feeling envious about the lack of adventure in their lives.

Fun!  Not.  “Am I wrong or was this place a lot more fun when we were younger?” a character asks.  He’s not wrong.  It is hard to say what is weaker, contemporary references like Kathy Lee and Hoda, Mario Lopez, JDate and reality TV dance competitions or attempts at humor that are merely references to the previous films or other 90’s markers.  If the menton of Chumbawumba or a cameo by one of the minor performers from the first film seems hilarious to you, no, you’re still better off re-watching the original.

The 30-comethings are out-classed by returning older generation (and fellow Christopher Guest ensemble stars) Eugene Levy as Jim’s widowed father and Jennifer Coolidge as Stifler’s mom.   “When are you going to realize that things are never going to be the way they used to be?” Jim asks.  Exactly.


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American Wedding

Posted on July 29, 2003 at 7:21 pm

Okay, I admit it — I laughed. A lot. Even more surprising, I smiled.

I was even a little sorry that this is the last of the American Pie trilogy.

For anyone who has not been to a movie in a few years, let me remind you that the humor of this movie as raunchy as it gets, and then some. There is not a bodily function or a sexual practice that is not made fun of in some excruciatingly humiliating way in these movies. But while that is part of their appeal to young audiences, for whom it is a reassuring release to laugh at these uncomfortable topics, that is not the reason for their success. Many, many other films made the mistake of thinking that gross-out humor was enough. What makes these movies different is that at their heart is, well, heart. Once again, as in the first two movies, there is a lot of talk about sex and a lot of attempts to have sex, but the sex that actually occurs is almost entirely respectful, monogamous, and really quite sweet. And once again the best part is Eugene Levy as the least hip (but most loving) father in the world.

In the original movie, Jim (Jason Biggs) and his friends make a commitment to have sex by graduation. He tries to get together with a beautiful exchange student named Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth), he ends up with band camp nerd Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), who turns out to be surprisingly ardent and adventuresome. In the second, they take a beach house for the summer with plans to have a lot of sex in it. Jim again tries to get together with Nadia, but again ends up with Michelle, originally so that he can learn how to be a better lover, but ultimately because he realizes that he loves her.

In this installment, they have graduated from college and Jim, who continues to be a magnet for humiliation, proposes to Michelle. All of the preparations for the wedding, from finding the perfect dress to meeting the new in-laws, to the bachelor party to the big day, provide opportunities for wild adventures that include more conventional set-ups for humor like a dance-off in a gay bar and a personality switch as the irrepressible id Stifler pretends to be a sweet, polite, preppy and philosopher Finch pretends to be an obnoxious bad boy. But mostly it is just a series of humiliating escapades as the straight-laced in-laws walk in on what appears to be Jim having sex with another man and some dogs, a bachelor party that involves strippers, a guy in bondage, and some very revealing leather pants, a character unexpectedly ends up having sex with an elderly lady, and yet another dessert is destroyed by Jim. As in all classic sex farces, the outrageous situations are really a morality tale — the good are rewarded and the naughty are punished.

Parents should know that this is an exuberantly outrageous movie with humor that is good-hearted but extremely explicit. There are jokes about every body part and function and about every kind of sexual practice, heterosexual and homosexual, including oral sex, mild S&M, and the use of sex toys. The language is extremely strong, with non-stop swearwords and exceptionally explicit sexual references. A character moons the others. A character has sex with someone thinking it is someone else. Stifler once again ingests a substance for gross-out effect, this time not even human. There is social drinking. The issue of religious intermarriage is raised when one family member objects, but everyone else is completely supportive. As in the previous movies, the female characters are exceptionally honest, open, and in charge of their sexuality for movies directed at this age group (or any age group).

Families who see this movie should talk about which gender or generation in this movie understands the other one best. And they should talk about Jim’s supportive father, and possible ways he might improve the way he shows his support. Families might also want to talk about the importance of selecting sexual partners with whom they can share truly intimate moments.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy American Pie and American Pie 2.

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American Pie

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 10:34 am

This is a movie about teenagers who promise each other that they will have sex before the night of the prom, and then do whatever they can to make it happen. It is one of the raunchiest and most explicit movies ever released by a major studio. The title, for example, refers to an apple pie that the main character masturbates in. A girl explains that she used her flute to masturbate. A boy ejaculates into a glass of beer. Boys hide a camera so they can broadcast pictures of a girl changing her clothes over the internet. A little boy hides in a closet so he can see teens have sex.

Parents whose kids see this movie may want to see it themselves, so they can give kids their own ideas about the appropriate ways to make responsible choices about sex, showing respect for themselves and their partners.

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Comedy Series/Sequel

American Pie 2

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Teenagers will want to see this movie because it is raunchy and gross. But like the original, the gross and raunchy moments, though frequent, are less important than the movie’s core sensibility, which is sweetly old-fashioned.

Let me be very clear. It very, very, raunchy and very, very, gross, with references to every kind of humiliation, sexual act, and bodily function. No one will call it wholesome. However, in the end, almost every sexual encounter is in a context of respect and sincere affection.

When we left Jim (Jason Biggs) and his pals at the end of the first movie, they had just achieved their ambition of having sex by graduation. This movie begins a year later, as they are finishing their first year in college and reuniting for what they hope will be a wild summer. They rent a house on the beach, put a keg on the porch, and do everything they can to entice bikini-clad ladies to join them. They talk a lot about how much crazy fun they want to have, but they do very little about it. Oz (Chris Klein) is devoted to his girlfriend (Mena Suvari), who is in Europe for the summer. Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is still dreaming about his night with Stifler’s mother (Jennifer Coolidge), and spends the summer preparing to see her again by learning about tantric sex. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), who could not bring himself to say “I love you” to his girlfriend (Tara Reid) in the first movie, is surprised to find that he is hurt and even a little lost after she has moved on. Jim, who was never able to get together with exchange student Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) in the first movie, is overjoyed to hear that she will be coming to visit him at the end of the summer. His top priority is to become more expert in bed, so he visits the “band camp geek” he had sex with on graduation night to get some pointers.

Only Stifler (Seann William Scott) continues to act like an unrestrained id, and even so, the closest he gets to having sex is when two women trick him into kissing Jim by promising to have sex with each other and let him watch. As in the first movie, it ends with one big night in which each of the characters more or less gets what he was looking for.

This is not a particularly good movie, but it is not a particularly bad one, either. I give it credit for treating its female characters like real people comfortable with their own sexuality, practically revolutionary for movies of this genre. I also give it credit for completely avoiding the usual sitcom-style painfully artificial mix-ups and misunderstandings. And there are some very funny moments, especially those featuring Eugene Levy as Jim’s magnificently unhip but understanding and loving father.

Parents should know that the movie features dozens of gross and raunchy moments, with references to anal sex, oral sex, tantric sex, masturbation, homosexuality, and bathroom humor. Characters engage in underage drinking, including trying to get girls drunk so that they will agree to sex. The atmosphere and dialogue may be completely irresponsible, but the behavior is not. As in the first, all major characters are white, which adds to the artificiality of the settings.

Any parent whose teenager sees this movie should see it, too, so that you can have some sense of the messages he or she is getting about making sexual choices, and have the opportunity to comment. You can begin by agreeing that Jim’s dad is dorky, and then talk about how a non-dorky parent (if there is such a thing) might approach these issues.

Families should talk about the way that Jim’s dad is completely supportive, even when Jim humiliates himself by mistaking superglue for lubricant and has to be rushed to the hospital. Jim’s dad does not criticize him for what is clearly a humiliating experience. He just reassures Jim that he loves him and is proud of him. Families might also want to talk about how people cope with the feeling that they do not know what they are doing and must be making terrible mistakes when they first become sexually involved, and the importance of selecting sexual partners with whom they can share truly intimate moments. And they will want to discuss teen drinking and other substance abuse issues as well.

Families who enjoy this movie should see the first one, and should compare them to the 1980’s equivalent (the “Porky’s” series) and the 1960’s equivalent (the “Beach Party” series).

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