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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Comedy Series/Sequel

Cop Out

Posted on July 20, 2010 at 7:50 am

If you have some affection for the 1980’s-era buddy cop movies (the “Lethal Weapon” series, “Running Scared,” “48 Hours,” etc.), rent one of those. Don’t try to re-create the genre by seeing Kevin Smith’s tired re-tread, “Cop Out,” starring Bruce Willis and Tracey Morgan. This is the first film Smith has directed without writing, and once again the suits got it backward. Kevin Smith can write, but he has never been much of a director. Remember his first film, “Clerks?” He basically set up the camera in one position and let the characters talk for 92 minutes. And it was that talk — the relishing of banality, the tsunami of TMI — that made the movie successful.
The check-list items are here. It begins with our not-so-lovably bickering heroes getting into trouble, being chewed out by a choleric police chief and dissed by a higher-ranking team (Kevin Pollack and Adam Brody). Denuded of guns and badges, they still have to figure out a way to save the day not just in locking up (or, mostly, shooting down) the bad guys but also in resolving their personal problems. Jimmy (Willis) has to figure out a way to pay for his daughter’s $50,000 wedding and Paul (Morgan) is hyper-jealous and has installed a nanny-cam in a teddy bear to find out whether his pretty wife (Rashida Jones) is cheating on him. Of course they run into an obnoxious small-time crook who will help them catch the bigger crooks (the Joe Pesci role — with a bit of Jason Mewes — goes to Seann William Scott). They are constantly nattering at each other but always having each other’s backs. And they mess everything up, in many different locations, until they don’t.
On the meandering way to the conclusion, we also see ambitious Mexican drug-dealers, a foul-mouthed kid, a valuable collectible, and a beautiful woman who has been in the trunk of a car for two days, as she repeatedly reminds everyone.
Willis looks like he is just running out the clock until his next project. Morgan and Scott try their best to stay afloat and there are some inspired improvisational riffs, but the script and direction keep getting in their way. The bad guys don’t do much but squint and call everyone “homes” all the time. Smith brought in Harold Faltermeyer, composer of the unforgettable “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack (he also provided the music for “Fletch” and “Top Gun”), occasionally amusing but mostly just pointlessly retro. And the movie perpetuates the least appealing element of its predecessors by giving its female characters nothing to do. Michelle Trachtenberg looks goth-pale and scary-thin as Jimmy’s daughter, Jones feeds Morgan straight lines and looks very pretty as Paul’s wife, and Ana de la Reguera is stuck in a typical spitfire (with real spit) role. Only Susie Essman (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) is able to make the most of her brief appearance as a pistol-packing homeowner.
Smith, smarting after a couple of failures, decided to play safe with a studio movie when what he needs to be doing is to stop putting all of his creative energy into funny tweets and go back to writing scripts with heart and humor and memorable characters. Anything else is a cop out.


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Action/Adventure Comedy

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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