American Pie

With the release of American Reunion just around the corner I thought it was about time to revisit the original trilogy of films.

Hard to believe but there was a time when MILF was not part of the common vocabulary. American Pie (1999) popularised the term and precipitated a surge of increasingly puerile, gross out teen comedies. It clearly has a lot to answer for.

The directorial debut of brother duo Chris and Paul Weitz, the story is simple – four high school graduates pledge to lose their virginity by prom night. What sets it apart from its imitators is the depth of its characters. Somewhat atypically, it gives almost equal thrift to its main female characters and presents them as both intelligent and aware. These young women are not simply sex objects and specifically chastise the males when they are treated as such.

The main characters all conform to a type; there is the eccentric middle-aged man in a teenager’s body; the rich, insensitive, overconfident jock; the sensitive kind-hearted jock; the nice guy in a long-term relationship; the unconfident nice guy. Among the women: the apparently naïve and geeky band camp veteran; the sweetly virginal girl in a long-term relationship; her confidently nonconformist and apparently more experienced best friend; the shy jazz singer; the forward and sexually confident foreign exchange student. The situations, too, are familiar – first love and the associated embarrassments, uncomfortable parental guidance, prom, nervousness about the post-high school world.

All of this is secondary, of course. What matters is that it is funny, frequently laugh-out-loud funny. The comedy comes thick, fast and crude but never gets in the way of the characters. And as crude as the humour gets it is never vindictive and largely avoids misogyny. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, one of the things that sets American Pie apart from its contemporaries is that it is ‘not mean’.

The young actors acquit themselves well. Seann William Scott in particular gives a confident and deceptively nuanced performance. Alyson Hannigan, at the time known for her role as the geeky and retiring Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, plays to type leading up to a still-effective turnaround: a joke where the punch line has been building for almost the entire movie. Jason Biggs is convincingly endearing as nice guy Jim and Tara Reid was probably never better. However Eugene Levy steals the show as Jim’s excruciatingly embarrassing and relentlessly forgiving father.

The charm of this movie for me is in showing the inherent crappiness of being a teenager, the worry of what is to come, the obsession with sex and what people think of you. It is genuinely crude but gets away with it by taking time to build characters that we care about. For my age group, it became something of a zeitgeist movie, one that was quoted relentlessly (MILF, This one time at band camp…). It defined a particular moment in time. Like The Breakfast Club before it, American Pie does have a moral message but unlike the earlier film it doesn’t take itself too seriously and is a stronger film for it.

When I rewatched this film I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed it. I hadn’t watched it for probably a decade and was oddly relieved to see that it still seemed fresh. It is very much of its time but hasn’t dated particularly. Its descendants include Super Bad and although those films upped the crudeness, they have yet to surpass it. American Pie, almost uniquely in this genre, found the balance between story, character and humour.

© Calum Campbell 2012

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