Only the first film, titled American Pie (1999) has really aged well despite being laughingly nineties in appearance. There is something. . .charming. . .and even low key about this end-of-the-nineties flick that, though focused entirely on sex, was not actually JUST about sex. Being in high school during that film and being the targeted audience, it was nice to see people I could actually relate to as opposed to 32 year olds pretending to be younger and being way too cool for school (literally).
(from left: Jason Biggs as Jim, Chris Klein as Oz, Thomas Ian Nicholas as Kevin, and Eddie Kaye Thomas as Finch from American Pie)
American Pie 2 (2001), the sequel that needed to happen since the first film was such a sensation, was very funny yet smelled more like the product of a franchise machine. I happened to be a college student on summer break when American Pie 2 came out. The main plot of that film? College kids on summer break. I was beginning to see that while the franchise of American Pie was spreading too many demographics, I was lucky enough to be relatively the same age and at the same points in life as the characters, making them relate-able and likable. When I saw American Pie and American Pie 2, I knew I was seeing slightly exaggerated versions of myself and my friends. Hence, while critics DESTROYED American Pie 2, I found myself enchanted with it, if not so much as I was with the first film.
(From left: Biggs, Seann William Scott (as Stifler), and Thomas in American Pie 2)
American Wedding (2003), the third film in the series, was a nice little effort, even tackling sentiment and actual drama, asking the audience to take their love of the characters, some of who did not return and some whose story lines had been spent if not in American Pie 2 then in American Pie 1, and make us see them as more than comedic set pieces. Sadly, the 'set pieces' overrode the story and thus the filmmakers defeated themselves, doing the opposite of what they intended to do.
But American Wedding was kind of sweet in a way. It was a film franchise, much like Lethal Weapon, oddly enough, that decided to show growth (or, the lack of growth) in its characters and wasn't afraid to show age and the ability to go beyond the mythological paradise that is high school. Not many comedy films get the chance to become a franchise but American Pie, in its successes and failures, managed to try to attempt maturity in, at least, its writing process and with the growth of the surviving characters.
It made me play 'what if' with a number of other films that, since not as successful as American Pie, yet still doing a decent job of being 'real', never got the sequel treatment: Can't Hardly Wait, a solid little film about the end of high school? Though the film, somewhat meanly, did a 'this is what happened' end titles card with each character, it is a film I saw as having potential enough to show realistic growth in many of its characters. The key here: both American Pie and Can't Hardly Wait didn't immortalize high school. Instead, it immortalized it for SOME while trying to focus on the reality of what it's like to be a teenager just figuring out how their bodies work and how their intelligence is forming.
Sounds like I'm giving American Pie (and Can't Hardly Wait) a lot of credit, huh? In the end, the movies are inherently goofy and not afraid to show pooping for laughs and to make sure every teenager who hadn't had sex yet in 1999 (me, by the way) was terrified of the devastating premature ejaculation. But cultural icons, and American Pie, whether you like it or not, is a movie icon, go deeper then the surface of the script and printed celluloid. They reach people, hence their popularity.
However, by the time American Reunion (2012) came around, the world had become a more fickle, ADHD place. American Pie might have been referred to as a classic but, for the most part, the stars that could basically choose their projects after the banktrucks that appeared for the first two movies had become fodder for 'where are they now'. Meanwhile, the sequels were generally forgotten, easily found in the $4.99 bin of your local warehouse.
So while American Reunion feels a bit tacked on by the producers (some of which are the stars of the film series) for reasons both financial and vain (it helps once-stars get a movie out in theaters and a paycheck) it also manages to do a number of things sequels wish could happen to them:
1)It makes the first film better
Let me explain. The first film is the best but, if you pretend the second and third films don't exist, or, in some cases, not, this extension kind of makes the growth and realism go up a notch. And imagine, like me, you are basically the same age as the characters. You're seeing 'yourself' in the late '90s with very simple goals and then you are seeing yourself 13 years later with a kid and a job that wasn't exactly your dream. Oh, and something called responsibility.
2)It turns a raunchy teen sex comedy into a (mild) adult comedy with characters people aren't sick of.
3)It provides a financial future for a 13 year old product in a society where you are forgotten in 13 minutes.
American Reunion isn't a direct sequel to American Wedding in a story sense. In fact, you don't have to see American Wedding to grasp that Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) are married with a kid and that, right away, sex is a problem (and while seeing American Pies 1-3 will establish that Michelle is a sex freak and Jim was 'used' on prom night in the first film never, presumably, to be seen again, the understood concept of a sexless marriage is understood without background films).
In the middle of this marital problem is a 13 year high school reunion for Jim, Michelle, and their mutual friends Oz (Chris Klein), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), and Steve Stifler (the always hilarious Seann William Scott). Seeing as the reunion is a well attended event, cameos large and small are well felt: Jessica (played by the brilliant Natasha Lyonne in American Pie 1 and 2), Vicky (Tara Reid, Kevin's first love and, coincidentally, lay), Heather (Mena Suvari, Oz's first love and lay), Sherman (or the Sherminator, played by Chris Owen; the catalyst for the first film's main plot), Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth), and Milf Guy # 2 (John Cho) are all there, more or less.
But instead of raucous, ultimately irresponsible and non-impactful tomfoolery, the now 30 year olds have to deal with an old life style coming up to haunt them when they can't afford or, in some cases, aren't legally allowed to participate.
The film's most over-exaggerated example is Stifler's high school antics. Still holding parties, still insulting every person he crosses, and still obsessed with sex (with seemingly any age as long as they are 18, even that day), Stifler stands as the extreme reminder that high school ended looooong ago. Though this section is played more for laughs, the theme, in general and played more low key, is reflected in the entire movie.
The most effective part, though brief, is Finch's fling with a former 'ugly duckling' from the band named Selena Vega (Dania Ramirez). In their exchanges they talk about how HORRIBLE high school was (as it is for most normal people) because they were awkward and misunderstood. Being more like Finch myself, I found these few scenes quite. . .refreshing. By film's end, Finch comes head on with his own worst nightmare twice: first, by being 'normal' and second, by going into the high school bathrooms.
Second best is Biggs, Hannigan, and Eugene Levy (playing Jim's Dad for the seventh time, since he was in the non-continuity based straight-to-video American Pie films) trying to work out their issues. Another bizarre angle in the 'mature' aspects of American Reunion is that Jim's mother had died and Eugene Levy is trying to figure out how to move on. Now, Jim, always the embarrassing receiver of Jim's Dad's well intentioned soliloquies, becomes the consoler, aiding Jim's Dad in getting out there and finding new fish in the sea.
While Jason Biggs' side of the whole 'dead mother' angle is never viewed, the mature angle of handling death in a family is surprisingly deep for a film where vagina pubic hair becomes a sight gag. Plus, we have what is inevitably a lost comedic talent in Jason Biggs doing amazing work with Levy, a veteran of comedic gold.
Biggs didn't become the breakout star of American Pie in 1999 but he got his share of flicks. Sadly, despite humorous and dramatic turns in a number of films, Biggs has, until 2012, been mostly forgotten. And that is a shame since his portrayal of Jim in all four movies is comedy movie classic, and I am not exaggerating. His 'realness' in the first film, his incredible physical comedy in the second film, and his ability to anchor the third film has made Jim Levenstein a character no one should forget but did anyway.
Pulling double duty with his marriage arc, Jim also has to deal with an unreasonable crush from his former ward/next door neighbor, a just-turned-18 bombshell named Kara who does everything Jim wished someone her age did for him in the era of the first film. Though we trust Jim will NEVER go to the dark side and sleep with an 18 year old, we do know he'll get into some well-intentioned trouble and, of course, drag everyone else along, for better or worse, during the critical situation.
And speaking of for better or worse, naturally, the funniest parts of the film belong to Steve Stifler, a character that wasn't even integral to the first film but proved so funny, due mostly to Seann William Scott's original delivery, that he became almost the entire focus of 2 and 3, even though 3 is about Jim's wedding!
Stifler has never been exactly sympathetic but he comes across as pathetic enough here that you actually feel for the guy. His storyline, once again, is a little over the top, but it serves as the overall crux of the film.
Other storylines include Kevin thinking he drunkenly slept with Vicky, despite the fact that he is happily married to a character not in the previous films. This storyline actually makes Kevin useful again as he was merely repeating himself, slightly dickishly, in the second film and had no purpose whatsoever in the third film. However, of all the American Pie characters, he is the most difficult to like as he always says the wrong thing, is mostly arrogant, and is always saying sorry for something by the end of his arc. And it doesn't help that Tara Reid, who pulled off a deceptively three dimensional performance in the first film, is not only unrecognizable but completely unintelligible as Vicky. Sadly, she has that look of the porn star whose done too many movies. In a word: empty.
And speaking of useless, Chris Klein, America's worst actor, reprises his role as Oz in this film after taking a break for the third one. Klein oddly became the second most popular actor of the main characters when the first film came out. He headlined a number of terrible films and was finally given the hook when he headlined the franchise-wannabe vehicle Rollerball, which is noted for having a 3% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
And if Klein's acting wasn't bad enough (though he was somewhat charming as a clueless jock in the first film and even in parts of the second), his story is even worse. Unlike every other character, Oz is from a different film: an on-the-rise sportscaster who lives in a mansion with his crazy hot girlfriend who just shows up and, luckily, finds the first love/lay from the first movie, Heather, there for the taking.
While seeing the two go for 'real' love is another mature angle the film takes, Klein is too old to pull off the dumb jock role. And he tries REALLY HARD to emote like a motherfucker in this one. Mena Suvari, who made her name with both American Pie and American Beauty in the same year, is fine but so aggressively normal, as she was in the first film, that anytime the dead-to-the-world acting of Klein mixes with her boring approach, the film grinds to a halt.
Thankfully, the subplots that don't work only take up a small portion of time. What the film does do, besides provide a solid plot, is dip men and women my age into a nostalgia bath and almost force us to drown. The film is so faithful to the first movie, both in theme and appearance, that a thirty year old like myself, with a child and not a dream job, can't help but be both happy to see people I literally grew up with again and sad for seeing a former life come up to the surface for a brief two hours before being buried again in the sands of time.
Jim and Finch, in particular, really wrecked my day when I saw the film. I identified with them so much that when they have their big revelations at the end, I was happy and dreadfully depressed all at the same time. Movies are meant to be escapes but sometimes refreshing journeys into reality can be a double edged sword.
I watched all four movies in a row after initially seeing American Reunion the first time and thought I saw a unique and, for the most part, well written series with lots of laughs. American Reunion, oddly, has more sex scenes and less laugh-out-loud moments then the other films but has a better aura around it. The first film feels like an all-time classic and while this most recent addition of course can't compare, it can, at least, add to the legend by offering a sobering, quaintly funny epilogue to a series of films that might not come again.