American Wedding

The original American Pie films have aged with their audience. In the soon to be released American Reunion, the fourth and latest in the series, the cast is reunited for their ten year high school reunion. American Pie, the first of them, featured the quest of four teenage boys to lose their virginity by prom night and focused on the transition from school to adult life. It’s sequel moved a year on and showed the characters reuniting after their first year at college and finding that old relationships cannot always be continued into adult life. The third, American Pie 3: The Wedding (a.k.a. American Wedding) focuses on another great landmark for its still-young audience: marriage.

The returning cast for this third installment is smaller. Gone are Chris Klein, Tara Reid and Natasha Lyonne, among others. This is a welcome move, allowing the story of this film to be more focused than American Pie 2 and none of the omitted characters are missed.

The film opens in the now established pattern – Jim’s dad (Eugene Levy) catches him in an embarrassingly awkward sexual situation. This scene is simultaneously very funny and touchingly romantic. With a few exceptions, romance has not been a real focus of these films and is a welcome new development in the franchise. In the past the focus has often been on bedding women but now even Stifler is looking for something more. This seems fitting – the characters are older and more mature.

Indeed the weakest aspects of the film are the attempts at gross out comedy. These do not work partly because the characters are older and more mature. What works for a teenage character does not necessarily work for a character in their twenties. An early scene involving a dog and a character’s crotch feels cheap. Later on jokes involve pubic hair and excrement. The film is at its best and funniest when, like American Pie 2 there is a detailed setup allowing us to guess the outcome and enjoy the build up. Among the stand out set pieces are Jim’s disastrous bachelor party and a scene in a gay club where Stifler surprises us for the first time.

Wedding films have been done so many times before. So many times that there is very little left to surprise us. The difference here is that we have had time to get to know the characters involved. The usual wedding movie issues plague our couple here but it all comes together in the end. Predictable, yes, but good enough. Jason Biggs’ great talent in these films is to play an archetypal loser who also works as an all round nice guy. We like Jim and we like Michelle for the same reason, we’ve got to know them over the course of two films and we want them to be happy together.

Seann William Scott as Stifler starts the film off as irritating. He hasn’t changed at all and wears a particularly annoying ‘idiot’ expression on his face for large parts of the early scenes. Gradually, however, he begins to show previously unseen depths and reveals that he does in fact care about his friends and their happiness. By the midpoint of the film he has become the highlight of the film and frequently provides its best scenes. Scott is an actor of some considerable skill. For anyone with any doubts about this, watch Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. He is the real focus of this film and carries it with ease. In a standout scene he brings a touch of brilliance to the cheapest, crudest joke in the series so far – a scene where he must eat dog shit. The material here is poor (it is clearly a token scene, the equivalent of the pale ale and champagne shower of the previous films) but pulls it off with aplomb.

Possibly the most effective aspect of the film is competition and role reversal between Stifler and Finch. With the latter, writer Adam Herz seemed unsure how to develop the character for the second movie and this resulted in an unfunny eccentric. For the third film Finch returns as a mature but arrogant friend who is still up for a laugh. Gone is the obsession with Tantra and the perpetual orgasmic moaning. But Herz doesn’t leave the characters like this. Instead he has them compete for the affections of Michelle’s sister (January Jones) in a genuinely amusing role reversal. Finch becomes the loudmouth, Stifler the pseudo intellectual.

It is genuinely funny seeing these two actors change roles and, surprisingly, this allows the two characters to grow. Finch is able to let his hair down and have genuine fun. In the past he has always kept himself at something of a distance. Stifler is able to show maturity and to realise that he too may want a relationship more like Jim’s. He is able to show his friends that he cares and to save the wedding, even though he caused almost all of the problems in the first place.

By focusing on only a selection of the original characters and genuinely developing them, this is a stronger sequel than its predecessor. It’s not perfect and some of the jokes are too cheap but it is funny, affectionate and nostalgic. For the first time we are introduced to a number of new characters including Michelle’s family, a gay pimp (Eric Allan Kramer in a standout performance) and his strippers . This helps inject new life into the film. American Wedding is a more than fitting conclusion to the story of Jim and his friends. It remains to be seen wether American Reunion can live up to its predecessors.

© Calum Campbell 2012

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American Pie 2

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

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