Well, seeing as the fourth American Pie theatrical feature is to be released soon, it seems like it’s high time to include the American Pie movies in The Series Project.
Now this does violate my rules a bit. There are, technically speaking, eight American Pie films, provided you count the four straight-to-video spinoff movies. But part of my self-imposed rules to The Series Project indicate that all sequels must have some sort of canonical throughline. That throughline can be as simple as yet another Roman numeral tacked onto an otherwise unrelated sequel, but there must be some sort of connective tissue to the previous entries in the series. The straight-to-video American Pie films are of their own continuity, and only connect to the theatrical films in tangential ways (there are a few shared characters). So what we’re really looking at here is one four-film cycle and a second four-film cycle.
But, just to be sporting, I will cover both cycles as one, and I will cover them chronologically. And, seeing as the newly-released American Reunion straddles the straight-to-video films, there is a kind of vibe of the entire series being surrounded and embraced. Maybe it does count after all.
I don’t know how many of you, dear readers, were teenagers in 1999 when the first American Pie was released, but the film has the aroma of a minor teen classic these days, and is well remembered by those who grew up with it. I saw the first two American Pie films on their opening nights. Its memorable characters, trademark gross-out humor, and frank talk of sexual matters came to, in many ways, represent film trends of the 1990s. It spawned countless knockoffs and revived the subgenre of the teen sex comedy that was so big in the early 1980s (that is to say: films about horny young boys chasing skirts and behaving like perverts all in the name of good fun; such films featured copious amounts of nudity, and were always light as air). It is also the film that popularized the term MILF, however dubious that honor may be. I certainly didn’t hear the term before. If you don’t know what it means… well, make sure your parents are not in the room when you look it up. There was a 2010 straight-to-video feature called MILF, I find. I haven’t seen it. I don’t intend to.
You may also recall the trend of gross out comedies from the 1990s. There was a time when R-rated comedy films were less about thritysomethings arrested in adolescence, trying to come to terms with their only-recently discovered adult emotions (thank you Judd Apatow), and more about pushing the envelope of what “raunchy” truly meant. I can’t cite an exact single film where the trend began, but I think it has a lot to do with the rise of Adam Sandler, compounded by the popularity of the Farrelly Bros. Things that hadn’t previously been seen in comedy films were now entering the lexicon in new and *ulp* exciting ways. It was in the mid-to-late 1990s that you first started seeing urination on screen. Human semen would occasionally show up, and in the case of There’s Something About Mary, would be used as hair gel. In the hugely unpopular movie Tomcats, someone ate a human testicle. The jejune was becoming operatic. I remember at the time, it was a relief to see a film wherein no one got coated with some bodily fluid or another. In my mind, the nadir of the movement was Tom Green’s 2001 vomitorium Freddie Got Fingered.
These days, bodily humor is everywhere. Jason Segel’s penis has been seen by millions. Thanks to the Scary Movie franchise (which will NOT get an article in The Series Project), I’ve seen someone get pinned to a wall by an ocean of ejaculate. The stakes have been raised. But there was a time when semen was fresh. I can’t believe I just typed the preceding sentence.
The American Pie movies (at least the four theatrical ones) follow a quintet of teenage boys and their sexual and romantic misadventures. Some would call their emotional journeys to be that generation’s The Big Chill, although the broad tone of the films feels more like National Lampoon. As the films progress, we get to see each boy as he goess through the next step of his sex life. When taken as a whole, there is something comforting about watching these boys growing up. Something halcyon. Having seen so many in a row, I found their journey to be a little moving, especially as each film came to an end. The details, however, are decidedly more crass.
Let’s dive into this cup of human fluids, and see if we can get our hearts beating.
American Pie (Dirs. Paul Weitz & Chris Weitz, 1999)
The setting: East Great Falls, MI.
I heard in interviews that directors Paul and Chris Weitz, and screenwriter Adam Herz, had less interest in writing a penetrating exposé on the current generation’s sexual milieu, and were more interested in throwing together all the grossest things they could. I think American Pie does indeed do a pretty good job of exposing a certain kind of sexual milieu, however immature it may be, and it does deliver on a lot of the gross-out stuff. The disgust may have been eclipsed by more recent fare, but this film is still plenty gross.
There are scenes of the following: A young man drinks a beer that’s been spiked with semen, a young man notoriously inserts his penis into an apple pie (which is where the film got its title), several people are caught masturbating (getting caught in the middle of an embarrassing sexual act will prove to be a regular theme of these films), a boy experiences premature ejaculation – twice – on camera, and almost every single conversation is an open and frank discussion about sexual matters.
The conversations are surely open and frank, but, seeing as the characters are all only about 17 years old, there isn’t too much in the way of adult sex positivity. This is a film about that magical time in a teenager’s life when sexual matters occupy your every thought, even though you don’t know what to do with it, and you don’t know how to get it, and you’re not exactly sure how to treat the people who are good enough to give some to you. I think this malaise is something every teen can relate to. I certainly found myself relating most strongly to Jim (Jason Biggs), the central character in the series, who is desperately horny, hopelessly awkward, and often finds himself in inexplicably embarrassing spots. For a few reasons (which I will not explain here) I can relate.
The quintet of boys are a quartet of virgins and one horndog. Jim is kind of hopeless when it comes to women, and he seems painfully aware of it. He doesn’t want a girlfriend. He just wants to get laid. He has no idea how to do that. There is Kevin (the handsome Thomas Ian Nicholas) who does have a girlfriend who adores him dearly, but who has been using the “L” word far too often for his comfort. The world is “love,” you perverts, and not “lesbian.” Or “lesbians” for that matter. There is the kind of bland Chris “Oz” Ostreicher (Chris Klein), whose blustering old ways of seduction are proving increasingly ineffectual. There’s Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), the intellectual of the group who looks at sex as a complex strategic game, although he has also had no luck in that regard. He’s also neurotic in small ways. For one, he refuses to use the toilets at his school for fear of bacteria. And there’s Steve Stifler (Seann William Scott), the douche-nozzle of the crew. Stifler is hugely amusing to the audience, but must be a horrible person to actually stand next to. He casually calls all his acquaintances “f*ckface,” and regularly lies to young women to get sex from them. He throws an awesome party, but is a toxic human being.
Have you ever shouted the word “beer!” in a crowded theater? I have. The guys that raise their plastic cups to the heavens shouting “woo!” are the Stiflers of the world. The same reaction applies to shouting “weed!” or “boobs!” or “lesbians!”
The story? The five boys make a pact to lose their respective virginities before prom at the end of the school year. Each has their own journey.
Each of these boys has (or will accumulate) a female counterpart in the film. Kevin has his girlfriend Vicky (Tara Reid) who is also a virgin, and seems to grasp that she and Kevin will have to break up before they both go away to separate colleges. Kevin and Vicky’s journey will center around the fate of their relationship, and what sex will mean to that. Oz is given some practical advice from a college girl that he needs to be more sensitive. He tries on sensitivity for the first time in his life, and finds that it actually works well for his gentle nature. He sets his sights on a cute gal in the jazz choir named Heather (Mena Suvari), and very quickly begins to see her as a romance, and not just a lay. Finch is given no actual girlfriend-type character, and attempts to land a date to the prom by spreading positive sexual rumors about himself. These plans will backfire, of course, but he still manages to find a mate on prom night. More on that later. Jim, meanwhile, has his sights set on the hot Czech exchange student Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth), but ends up going to the prom with the mousy and obnoxious band geek Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) who begins all her stories with the phrase “This one time, at band camp…”. The entire crew is overseen by the only wise character in the film Jessica, played by the wonderful Natasha Lyonne.
These actresses, by the way, were often interviewed as being the new generation of Hollywood’s female elite, and graced countless magazine covers back in 1999. Only Hannigan made a name for herself, however, doing other things (she was in the cult TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Suvari was notable in American Beauty, but did little else of note. Reid was a heartthrob of massive proportions, but got a notoriously bad breast augmentation that was ripped apart by the press. Elizabeth became a lad mag star, as she was the only one of the cast to appear topless in the film. All of the actresses, however, are lovely and charming.
Also notable is Jim’s unnamed father (credited only ever as “Jim’s Dad” in the theatrical features, although in the straight-to-video films, he will be named Noah Levenstein), played brilliantly by Eugene Levy. Jim’s dad is kind of a doofus, who is constantly wanting to talk to his son about sex and sexual matters. The first time we see him in the film, he gives a stack of x-rated magazines to his son [(Old Man Voice): In my day, pornography came in magazines! And we liked it that way!]. And while Jim’s dad’s talks are always awkward (and, to be honest, rather funny), they are undercut with a kind of sweetness. Jim’s dad, we sense, actually cares about his son, and wants to give good advice. Which he does occasionally.
Letsee. There are plenty of house parties in the film, and booze is consumed openly. I was never invited to those parties, so I doubt they existed. Call it sour grapes if you must. The final after-prom party is where all the sexual arcs will come to a close. Kevin and Vicky will sleep together, and then, bittersweetly, break up. Oz will give up being a champion lacrosse player to sing in a jazz choir (which will include the old saw of racing to a show to arrive just in time), and the two will fall properly in love. Oz and Heather are so sweet and clean that their story, while possessing much of the film’s heart, will feel kind of bland. Jim will blow it with Nadia (he broadcasts a stalled tryst on the internet), and will discover that Michelle, the geeky band girl, is secretly into rough and kinky sex, and she will use him. Finch will find himself an outcast after being force-fed laxatives at school (I don’t recall hearing rumors abut explosive pooping incidents at my school, but maybe I just ran in the wrong circles). Luckily, he is still sophisticated enough to charm Stifler’s mom (a wonderfully vampy Jennifer Coolidge), to the eternal chagrin of Stifler.
Yes, it’s here that the term MILF is brought to mind. There’s a pair of characters (played by John Cho and Justin Isfeld) who like to chant the world “MILF.” They’ll appear in, oddly, all the sequels.
The film is funny, but, looking back, it seems kind of tame. It may have been edgy and daring at one point, but feels almost like a sitcom today. Even though each of the male leads has their fair amount of charm, they each come across as a kind of non-entity. Only Jim emerges as a real character. The others are only defined by their sexual interests.
Which may be just fine, though, seeing as they’re all only 17, and just figuring it out for the first time. Teenagers, despite what The Breakfast Club would lead us to believe, don’t spend a lot of time bearing their souls and having long, heated debates about their respective life philosophies. They’re more, I think, kind of like these kids. Constantly preoccupied with romance, sex, and relationship status. Studying is hardly even addressed.
The film ends on a very sweet note, as do they all. At the film’s outset, our heroes vow to take “the next step,” by losing their virginities. At the end of the film, when they all have had sex, they realize that high school is now at an end, and college will change their lives. They will kind of grow up now. They then, again, toast to “the next step.” I like that. American Pie is possessed of a weird, loving halcyon quality, even if it’s not entirely deep or realistic (see Cameron Crowe or John Hughes for that). This is camaraderie via musical montage.
How did the next step go?
American Pie 2 (dir. J.B. Rogers, 2001)
Over the course of American Pie 2, our returning quintet of heroes constantly talk about having “the best summer ever” and throwing the “best party ever.” By this point, I think I figured it out: The American Pie movies are tapping into the mainstream adolescent male ethos in a pure fantasy notion of the universe. Compare, for instance, American Pie 2 to something like The Hangover, which could very well be about the exact same characters. Both films are about a desperate male need to not just have fun, but to make sure your fun is marked in some sort of vaguely historical fashion. There seems to be a male fear floating around the culture that everyone else is having more fun than you, and you must actually work hard and grasp desperately at the promised fun your scenario provides in order to prove yourself as an acceptable human being. In The Hangover, the promise is Las Vegas and the institution of the bachelor party. In American Pie 2 it’s the lakeside rental house which you rule over. There is an overpowering party fantasy held by all young men in modern American culture, and, in order to fulfill the myth, young men find themselves desperately overindulging in substances, and trying to create the perfect party scenarios in which to engage in depraved pornographic fantasies.
As a result, the debauch of these American Pie characters feels artificial. These kids are not actually depraved, but merely aspire to be. The film is constantly reinforcing what nice kids they are, and how sensitive they can be. But they’re not really into the kinky things they want to be into. If they were, these films would be more mature. The sex would be looked at in a more positive fashion, and the twinge of misogyny would not be present. Their promises of joy and togetherness through their shared party experiences do not feel organic. At times, it feels chintzy and forced.
Oh yes, about that misogyny. It’s only kind of bubbling under the surface so far. By the seventh film, it will rear its head in earnest, as will the series’ discomfiting fear of sex and of homosexuality. For now, we’re left with a group of college kids having a good time, and getting into their usual disgusting antics.
Don’t get me wrong. American Pie 2 is still enjoyable, brisk, bright and funny. The characters are all still likeable and occasionally hilarious. Their sexual angst is also something very relatable and fun. As we catch up with our heroes a year after the events of American Pie, we find them in the next logical place, and adjusting to the college ethos well. No big plot twists or anything. Just, well, the next step.
Jim (Jason Biggs) has now had sex with a second person (although his parents walked in on him, oops), and finds that Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) is still interested in him, despite his premature ejaculations from last time. He has until the end of the summer, when Nadia plans to visit, to become a better lover. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is now single, and has reunited with Vicky (Tara Reid), who has moved on. He finds he’s still kind of in love with Vicky, and spends the entirety of the film trying to remain friends with her. Oz (Chris Klein) is still dating Heather (Mena Suvari) and their relationship is going well, even though she’s spending the summer studying abroad. So well, in fact, that the only real drama in their lives is that they can’t find the time to have proper phone sex. Not so dirty, no so dramatic, no temptation of others in their path, a little bland, in keeping with their characters. Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) has become obsessed with Stifler’s mom (Jennifer Coolidge) and has started studying tantra, as he knows her to be interested in such things. Stifler (Seann William Scott) is just as boorish as ever.
Jim, in order to become a better lover, tracks down Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), who is staying nearby at, well, band camp. She’s still as awkward as ever, but knows sexual matters, and Jim needs her advice on how to improve. By taking lessons, Jim and Michelle, however, begin to grow closer.
Jim also has an incident wherein he accidentally swaps glue for his personal lubricant. Yes, American Pie 2 still has plenty of gross out moments for you. Someone gets peed on when he thinks he is being bathed in champagne. The scenes, however, where Jim glues his hand to his penis are actually a rather marvelous piece of physical comedy. I heard tell of a friend (who shall remain nameless) who accidentally used BenGay to masturbate once. He will not make that mistake again. Even though I don’t think anyone has accidentally glued their hand to their penis, it sounds like another legitimately horrible experience one might actually have. Sadly, a lot of the gross out stuff undercuts the film’s sweetness from time to time. Following the scene where Jim is taken to the hospital to have his hand removed, his dad (Eugene Levy) actually has the heart to tell Jim that he’s a good kid and that he’s proud of him. The scene is almost poignant. Almost. The final line in the scene is “don’t forget your penis cream.”
Oh yes, and there’s that kind of offensive scene with the lesbians. To pay for their summer party house, our quintet get a job painting houses. One of their clients is a pair of lovely roommates (Denise Faye and Lisa Arturo) whom Stifler assumes to be lesbians. Three of the five boys break into the house while they’re out looking for “lesbian artifacts.” The house does sport Melissa Etheridge posters and Georgia O’Keefe paintings, so that might be considered evidence. When the three boys are caught, the two women decide to mess with them. They promise to perform lesbian sex acts for the boys, provided the boys perform gay sex acts upon each other first. The homophobia throughout the scene made me a little uncomfortable. Just to make sure everyone’s okay, the film establishes, beyond a doubt, that these boys are most definitely not gay. Nope. They all got a case of the NotGays. Oddly, it’s Stifler who proves to be the least homophobic. Even though he’s still plenty homophobic.
Despite all my griping, I think the kids all come across as kind of sweet. I guess because they’re all only 19 at this point, and still get to get away with the embarrassing stuff. Just like the first, all the characters end up at one of Stifler’s parties, and they all end up in the right place with their right mates: Jim rejects Nadia and ends up in bed with Michelle. Kevin and Vicky end up getting along as friends. Oz and Heather reunite. Stifler gets to sleep with two hot chicks. And Finch? Well, Stifler’s mom does come home at the last minute. Lucky for him. Stifler is still outraged. It’s not seen as to whether or not Finch and Stifler’s mom have tantric sex.
Again, not too deep, just sweet enough, and camaraderie through ’90s music montage. Just right for slumber parties. Let’s do this again next summer, okay guys? Can we do this every summer? This was great.
A few years pass. College ends. What then?
American Wedding (dir. Jesse Dylan, 2003)
So the previous two films were good about making the quintet of boys seem like real friends, and their halcyon promises of constant reunions felt like real promises. They’re no scene in any of the films where the promises fall away, and adult responsibility begins to intrude. We’re left to coast on the promise alone. Which is fine, if halcyon nostalgia is your goal.
American Wedding, however, is less about the quintet, and more about Stifler (Seann William Scott). All the film’s plot points center on Stifler and his behavior. It’s not his wedding, mind you, but its his actions that will dictate the success of the wedding. Its his potential romance that will drive the plot. All the conflict arises from what he can and cannot do. True, Oz and Heather, who are conspicuously absent from this film, always had the “plain” storyline in the ensemble, but at least they offered some balance. American Wedding is a one-man show. Bad approach.
The gross out situations are also getting more farfetched. I could accept Stifler getting peed on in American Pie 2, but I’m not sure I can buy him having sex with Jim’s wheelchair-bound grandmother (Angela Paton) in a darkened closet, while he thinks it’s someone else. Or that he would eat a dog turd to disguise that it was a dog turd. For much of American Wedding, I had to hide my eyes.
So three years have passed, and everyone has graduated from college. Jim (Jason Biggs) has decided to propose to Michelle (Alyson Hannigan). Jim is still awkward and Michelle is still a kinky nymphomaniac; in the film’s first scene, without too much prompting, she fellates Jim under a restaurant table. Then Jim is interrupted by his dad (Eugene Levy). I’ll say this about Jim’s dad: He’s way cool about all this. He seems to know that his kid will often be in shocking and public sexual scandals, and he seems to take it in stride. So when he puts together that Michelle is blowing his son, he wisely backs off.
The rest of the film is that embarrassing floundering one often sees in bromantic comedies. I want you to know that my fingers recoil every time I try to type the word “bromantic,”but yeah, there’s that feeling that marriage is the end of fun in the world, and that “the guys” will no longer be an institution. See my previous comments on The Hangover for more of this. Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) are relegated to the sidelines while Stifler does all the mugging and funny stuff. Kevin toasts to “the next step” in this film, but he is immediately admonished. I guess all the heart is gone.
Since Stifler is the center of the film, what’s his journey? Well, he must come to realize that he’s an obnoxious, boorish, woman-hating d*ckhead, and learn to be more of a human being to his friends. No one wants him at the wedding, but he invites himself anyway. He puts on a very phony façade of being a nice guy in order to impress Michelle’s parents (Fred Ward and Deborah Rush in full-tilt Margaret Dumont mode), and Michelle’s hot, hot sister Cadence (January Jones). Finch, in response, puts on a façade of being a Stifler-type. Cadence seems equally impressed by both men. Doesn’t speak much to her taste. Kevin, by the way, has little of consequence to do in the film. He’s a filler character. I wish he had something to do with Vicky.
What are the conflicts? Nothing really. Jim tries to impress his in-laws-to-be, and constantly runs aground. In a now-perfunctory scene, Jim embarrasses himself by shaving his pubic hair, and then throwing this shavings out the window, only to have them get sucked into a fan on the lower floor, and blown right into his wedding cake. The big conflict, I suppose, is that Jim’s grandmother doesn’t approve of the wedding (Michelle’s maiden name is Flahery, implying that she’s Irish Catholic, while Jim’s grandmother wants him to marry a Jew). But she gets over it when Stifler rapes her in a closet. Funny!
Stifler ruins everything, but then he fixes everything. He manages to land the attention of a famous dressmaker by dancing in a gay bar. He schedules the bachelor party for a bad time (and the strippers, played by Nikki Ziering and Amanda Swisten, seem oddly indulgent), but he comes up with the cockamamie story that covers it up. He accidentally ruins the flowers, but buys new ones in the nick of time. He is an ass, but teaches Jim how to dance.
Y’know, for a series of films that banks of gross out humor and deviant sex, it’s amazing how heteronormative a message they promote. Gays are seen as buffoons, homosexuality is a bugaboo, and deviant sex is seen as, well, deviant. The only real outsider relationship that works is the one between Finch and Stifler’s mom. Mismatched in age, but sexually compatible. I have already seen American Reunion, so I can say that they don’t end up together, but the end of American Wedding implies that they might.
American Wedding is a forgettable film. It whimpers along, not leaving much of an imprint. It was a sad way to see the series go. But I guess once you’re in your mid 20s, and you’re marrying and having more grown-up relationships, the goofy and embarrassing crap you did as a kid isn’t to be expected anymore. When it does happen, it feels more sad than goofy. How nice if we had been given a sex positive screed instead. Like a scene wherein Michelle had to come out to her parents as being into S&M. Or perhaps she admitted to Jim she was a proper sex addict.
But no. The film is still light. It ends on a sweet enough note, I suppose, but it could have been much stronger.
Be sure to come back next week, as I intend to review the four straight-to-video American Pie films, and give a brief word on American Reunion. Let’s see what low budgets, diminishing characters, and the promise of much more nudity can do for us. Until then, kiddos, keep the pastry handy.