The late nineties were a brief golden age for teen cinema. John Hughes and the brat pack that had dominated the eighties were a fading memory and the moralistic movies that they had made seemed perhaps a little quaint. For this new decade the teen movie was revamped, its parameters expanded. Now teens had sex, did drugs and committed crimes without punishment. Now endings were not always happily ever after – Molly Ringwald would never hook up with Judd Nelson in the nineties. During this period, the slasher genre reemerged from its direct to video purgatory with Wes Craven’s blockbuster Scream; Wild Things, an erotic crime thriller became a Basic Instinct equivalent for teens; Cruel Intentions, a modernising adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses caused a mini sensation and launched the career of Reese Witherspoon; American Beauty showed that unhappiness and angst were not the exclusive preserve of the middle-aged; and American Pie reconfigured the teen comedy and showed that teens could be portrayed relatively realistically without the need for a John Hughes-style moral message.
You might argue that some of these films were not ‘teen’ films and I would agree. But the teen audience did embrace them. In any case these were among the films that were talked about at the time, that my friends and I saw together, that seemed to speak to us.
It couldn’t last, of course, and within a few years it was all over. The success and quality of these movies inevitably ended their reign. American Pie made $235,483,004 at the worldwide box office from a budget of $11,000,000; Scream $173,046,663 from a $14,000,000 investment (figures from Box Office Mojo). Cashing in, the studios flooded the market with sequels, imitations and remakes. If the nineties was a utopia of quality in teen movie making, the following decade was a mass of cynical sequels and insulting remakes. The time of Scream 3, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Cruel Intentions 2 and 3, Road Trip: Beer Pong, Wild Things 2 and 3 and later a whole slew of direct-to-video American Pie spinoff sequels, among many others.
It was in this environment that American Pie 2 was made. Released in 2001, two years after the original, and set one year on from that film, the sequel sees the cast reunite for a summer vacation together. The friends have all been at college over the last year and on returning home find themselves bored and disillusioned. They decide to rent a beach house on Lake Michigan, work as handymen to cover the rent and party the rest of the time.
Adam Herz returns as screenwriter of the sequel while directorial duties are taken on by J. B. Rogers. Virtually the entire cast of the original film return and in many ways not much has changed. Jim (Jason Biggs) is still nervous and sexually inexperienced, Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is still hung up on Stifler’s mom, Oz (Chris Klein) and Heather (Mena Suvari) are still in a relationship, (Thomas Ian Nicholas) has not moved on from Victoria (Tara Reid) and Stifler (Seann William Scott) is still his rudely overconfident, sex-obsessed self. In some ways the return of so many of the original characters is a weakness. While Jim and his friends, for the most part, develop, Natasha Lyonne is basically comic decoration and Tara Reid’s character Victoria is just plain boring. The film lags in places and would have been stronger with some streamlining. Reid’s character in particular is superfluous. Among the males, Finch, amusing in the original, is irritating here. His obsession with Tantric meditation is tedious, unfunny and unbelievable and his story line is a series of repetitions of the same joke – ‘I slept with Stifler’s mom and really want to do so again’.
The recurring theme of the film is the guys coming to terms with the fact that as they grow older they are changing and their relationships are changing. Stifler is frustrated that Oz has remained in a relationship with Heather and others are frustrated that Stifler is still as immature and obnoxious as ever. Jim is gearing up for a reunion with Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) and is endearingly and believeably paranoid about not disappointing her. This leads to the return of Alyson Hannigan’s Michelle as Jim’s performance coach. Hannigan makes the most of her expanded character and is able to infuse her performance with a quirky cuteness that is immediately winning.
The big problem with comedy sequels is that they tend to rehash the jokes of the original. There is some of that here but it must be said that some of the biggest laughs in this film come from American Pie Redux scenes: the opening embarrassment with a brilliant Eugene Levy as Jim’s dad and the Stifler’s champagne scene in particular. These scenes work so well partly because we know the characters and know what to expect. The anticipation of a punch line can be as amusing as the punch line itself. Elsewhere Jason Biggs shows off his slapstick skills in a genuinely hilarious extended masturbation sequence which lands him in hospital.
Among the strengths of the original film was that its comedy was never vindictive and its female characters were well drawn. In this film three of the main female characters are bit players and not involved in the main plot – one of them even spends the bulk of the film on a different continent. Like the previous film, the female characters tend to reject attempts by the guys to objectify them and this is played out explicitly in a scene where the target of the boys’ voyeuristic machinations turns the tables to fairly humourous, if vaguely homophobic, effect. Elsewhere, Jim impersonates an apparently ‘special’ student at band camp. This joke is overplayed and is probably on the wrong side of the line in terms of offensiveness.
Overall the strengths of the sequel outweigh its weaknesses. The characters are entertaining enough and the cast engaging enough for us to go on the journey with them. Seann William Scott and Eugene Levy steal the show but the acting of the whole ensemble has improved in the interim. Most of the characters have developed and Alyson Hannigan’s Michelle, in particular, has developed from a slightly irritating one-joke character to a romantic lead. It would be a stronger film if it had cut out some of the secondary characters and focussed on the leads but for the most part it is a good, fun comedy. It’s weaknesses do mean, however, that the original remains the best.
© Calum Campbell 2012