Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Franchise Legacy: American Pie (Part 2)
Franchise Legacy is a series where I review all the entries in a given franchise, and try to determine what (if any) impact the series has had on the public at large. I started work on this first entry, for American Pie, sometime during fall 2009, intending to get it done before the first film's 10th anniversary had past, but it fell by the wayside and I wasn't sure I was ever going to run it. Recently, the series' seventh entry, American Pie Presents: The Book of Love, has arrived on DVD, and I thought it would be a good time to resurrect my article.
For Part 1 of this article, click here.
American Pie Presents: Band Camp (2005)
I guess band camp is a reasonably logical place for an American Pie spin-off to go, but the setup in the movie is bizarre: after pulling a pepper spray prank that sends several students away in ambulances, Matt Stifler (Tad Hilgenbrinck) is, uh, sentenced to band camp for the summer (by the Sherminator, now an East Great Falls High guidance counselor in a mildly depressing Chris Owen cameo). Matt's plan to survive such a dreadful torture? Buying what looks like $25,000 worth of video equipment (all with the click of a mouse and the script's disinterest in creating a logical financial situation for the character) to record whatever hijinks occur (especially anything sexual).
Five seconds of Hilgenbrink's Stifler impersonation and you get it -- this is why they made the movie. The guy has Scott's mannerisms and tone down pat, and he's less annoying than Scott's performance in American Wedding to boot. And, even more importantly, just like Eric Christian Olsen's truly remarkable Jim Carrey impersonation in Dumb & Dumberer, it makes not one bit of difference when it comes to the film's comedic aptitude. You can have several Oscar-caliber performances in a movie -- which this absolutely isn't, in any way, shape or form (just spot-on mimicry) -- and it doesn't mean anything unless the script is up to par, which, in Band Camp's case, it is not.
When describing the comic scenarios in Band Camp, the word "labored" springs to mind, over and over again, as Stifler ends up in some sort of embarrassing or disgusting situation, and then either someone walks in on it or something even more disgusting and embarrassing happens. I suppose this might work for a shock laugh or two, but the situations are always painfully telegraphed, with obvious punchlines. On top of all of these problems, the scenarios are just plain...unlikely, to say the least. An example of all of these problems: the events that lead Matt to sexually pleasure by sticking his manhood in the end of an oboe are haphazardly thrown about in two scenes where other things will likely be taking up the audience's attention, and there's no further payoff than the sight gag, both of the character doing it and the aftermath in which the instrument won't come off, neither of which is that funny to begin with. There's also the problem with gross-out for the sake of gross-out, and while a shot of a filled-up toilet is unnecessarily distasteful, there is a scene in Band Camp that goes farther than I could stomach. Maybe it's just me; I've never been nauseated by a movie before, but a scene involving a soda can really turned my stomach, and still does even now (I'm literally retching as I think about it).
This being a direct-to-video Unrated DVD, the nudity and sexual content is really ramped up for this entry, which means a lot of gross-looking post-surgery boobs for little to no reason. In fact, there's more nudity in Band Camp than there is the first three American Pie films put together, a theme that will continue throughout the American Pie Presents series in the most exploitational and useless way. Matt sticks a camera in the girls' shower area, and the results are almost so over-the-top as to be funny; I may be going out on a limb here, but I doubt impromptu dance scenes regularly break out in girls' showers. Of course, the writers of American Pie Presents: Band Camp don't know anything about going over the top, much less poking fun at themselves, so the girls perform "I Like Big Butts" on Stifler's webcam without irony.
Then, of course, there's Eugene Levy. As will become a running motif with these direct-to-video sequels, I'm not sure why Eugene Levy is willing to appear in them; the movies look like they cost under a million dollars, so how much money could they possibly be offering him? Regardless, he's here, dutifully making faces, referencing the originals as frequently as possible, and basically delivering exposition, which leads me to my next question: why pay Eugene Levy a bunch of money to be in your movie and saddle him with all the boring dialogue? The guy is a talented improvisor, if someone gave him the chance, he might come up with some comedy gold. Alas, it is not to be. Aside from Levy, and to a lesser extent, Owen (only in two scenes), the other way the movie tries to feel similar to the originals is by using the same songs (although they had to swap Jimmy Eat World for a cover version).
That said, there is actually one scene in the movie that's really nice; a brief character moment between Matt and Elyse (Arielle Kebbell), the movie's female lead, where they lie and watch the clouds. For approximately three minutes, the movie does fairly low-key dialogue jokes, Hilgenbrink turns off the Stifler impression, and the characters just chat with each other. In fact, having just finished reviewing The Book of Love, I can definitively say this is the one and only genuinely successful "nice"/"sweet" scene in all four spin-offs. Of course, the moment can't last: it's followed by a ridiculous scene where literally everything that could go wrong for the Stifler character does so, and does so consecutively, like a checklist, which is, like the dancing, sort of funny, but again, not in any evidently intentional way. I guess the "nice" scene at the end of the film is fine, but, like the rest of the film, it's predictable and contrived, which robs it of the things that make the other moment work.
American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile (2006)
Just like American Wedding is a step down from American Pie 2 and Band Camp is a step down from American Wedding (annoying Scott performance and all), The Naked Mile is a step down from Band Camp. Although this second sequel has a less irritating lead actor, the connections to the rest of the series are mighty tenuous, and the ability to harp on that nostalgia for the series is really all the gas these spin-offs have in the tank.
There are germs of ideas in the plot of The Naked Mile, none of which go anywhere. Erik Stifler (John White) is the only virgin in the Stifler clan, behind cousins Matt, Steve and Dwight (Steve Talley). His girlfriend Tracy (Jessy Schram) isn't ready, and Erik is getting antsy, worried that his persistent dry spell will reflect poorly on his family or give him an inescapable reputation as a loser virgin (or something). Tracy's awful friends (more on them later) persuade Tracy to give Erik a shot at fourth base, but after a disasterous first attempt, Tracy goes back in her shell, waving a white flag of surrender. Her idea: a guilt-free pass for one weekend, to be used while Erik heads up to college and attends the Naked Mile, a yearly clothes-free run through campus.
I know it's just the beginning of a story, one that would need an actual plot following it to work, but I'm convinced that the "guilt-free pass" idea could have been a Hangover-style hit in the right hands. Instead, the idea is buried in The Naked Mile, which has Tracy regretting the agreement almost immediately, followed by various painful plot devices (like a shot of Erik making out with another girl on the evening news) that create dumb miscommunication and other predictable romantic comedy crap for the couple to fight through and triumph over. I'm almost obsessed with the concept: just the basic idea of a "guilt-free pass" that starts out fun but ultimately results in a weekend to regret sounds like an excellent concept to hang a good R-rated comedy on, and it's mildly infuriating that the idea is basically wasted in a crappy direct-to-video American Pie sequel. There's also the premise of the Naked Mile itself, which as depicted is a believable, sexy event to use as the backbone for a movie, but the event ultimately has no bearing on any part of the plot, other than the miscommunication I already described.
Instead of capitalizing on these good ideas, the movie places two things center stage: the entirely uninteresting noble turn that Erik predictably takes in the final reel, and the character of Dwight Stifler, who is not a suitable replacement for either Scott or even Hilgenbrinck. Talley is not quite annoying, but he does reek of failed comedy at all times; the script has not a single good line, funny mannerism or amusing moment for him to play, and the actor brings nothing to the table to improve upon the writing. At least it's not a rehash of Hilgenbrinck's Stifler impression, which would be both redundant (did Hilgenbrinck's price get too high?) and probably irritating. Both Erik and Dwight also mark the Presents series' pointless, oddball need to introduce new Stiflers. By the time the seventh has drawn to a close, there are a total of nine family members on screen in one of these, plus a bonus tenth in Chris Penn (who played Stifler's Dad in American Pie 2 but wisely wound up on the cutting room floor).
The Dwight part of the story introduces the movie's villain, an entire fraternity of little people that are out to bring Stifler and Beta House down. The problem here is not really that this development is not very funny (which it isn't), but that it's so gimmicky. None of the original American Pie movies relied on such jokey, bizarre setups to be funny (even if there was an extensive misunderstanding or two), and there's no reason The Naked Mile should have to do it either. Any and all scenes of the two houses' rivalry is lazily thrown at the movie like a spitball, in the hopes that it will stick even though it's just timekiller material, filled with scenes that don't contribute anything even to the almost non-existent arcs of the characters. In fact, the most dispiriting thing about The Naked Mile is how disinterested the whole enterprise is in even going through the motions of being part of the franchise. It isn't set in a familiar place, it doesn't bring back any characters (other than stealing the name Stifler and attaching it to an entirely different nuclear family), and (unlike the previous entry) it doesn't even half-heartedly try to cheat by using the same music.
Oh wait, I lied. Eugene Levy makes his customary appearance, which is about as shoddily written in as is humanly possible. Unlike Band Camp, which made Jim's Dad a counselor, there's literally no legitimate reason for the character to be in the same place as any of the characters, and the script doesn't even try to hide it. The second time wee see Jim's Dad in The Naked Mile, it's when Erik sits down on what is literally a random park bench somewhere on the college campus, and the person sitting on the same bench puts down the newspaper and -- surprise -- it's Levy. I'm almost surprised that Levy doesn't stop one of the long-winded explanations about his experiences with Jim and simply ask Erik if he saw the first American Pie, because it'd probably be more subtle than the existing execution. The only interesting tidbits about Levy's glorified cameo is that the movie credits his character with the creation of the Naked Mile (I found that amusing), and that you find out what his first name is. TFP non-contributor Matthew Lingo claims you find out in another movie (it may be written somewhere in American Wedding), but for the record, it's not as good as series creator Adam Herz's suggestion that his name is Bullwinkle.
Finally, I do have to call out writer Erik Lindsay on a couple of points. First of all, really? Your name is Erik and you named your main character Erik? Isn't that a little narcissistic? And, more importantly, why are Tracy's friends (specifically the one played by Jordan Madley) so unrelentingly awful? I'm not exactly offended, per se, but dialogue like "Men are like dogs. They hump everything they see. Now go and get your dog back on its leash," and "We're girls. Boys should know better than to trust us to be rational. It's not in our nature," not only sounds like a male writer trying and failing to write dialogue for women, but it's also shockingly ignorant. I know you're writing the fifth American Pie movie here, but, come on, man, don't be an asshole. Lastly (and this criticism is directed at director Joe Nussbaum as well), please do not even suggest an homage to Ferris Bueller's Day Off ("suggested", in this case, because Universal probably had no interest in securing the rights to the actual song from Bueller; a vague sound-alike takes its place).
American Pie Presents: Beta House (2007)
Not shockingly, American Pie Presents: Beta House is the worst entry in the series. The first (and, perhaps, best) indication of how little Beta House cares about anything arrives at exactly one minute and six seconds into the film, when the following line of dialogue appears: "Son, you spent the entire summer depressed because your girlfriend ran off with that pretty boy, Trent."
That's right, in case you're actually following along, that line of dialogue basically negates the entirety of American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile, which had the main character, Erik rushing back to East Great Falls to save said girlfriend from sleeping with that very character. Now, I hate to spoil the emotional core of The Naked Mile for you, but in an overwhelmingly unsurprising twist, the power of love wins out, with Erik and Tracy ready to live a full and wonderful life together on the strength of their undying passion for one another. Yet Beta House, the only direct sequel among the Presents films -- even written by the same person, Erik Lindsay -- can't even be bothered to give the slightest s--- about its predecessor.
Knowing this, I watched with startling disinterest as the film mounts a plot that could best be described as Revenge of the Nerds in reverse, with the nerds as the villains. There is an even vaguer inkling of an idea here than in the previous two films (I liked that the nerds got all the women because the women knew the nerds would eventually be rich), but...ugh, it's so much effort to try and make a good movie.
All of the same problems with The Naked Mile are essentially present here, because the movie focuses on the same characters. The only notable difference, and indeed, the only bright spot in the entire movie is actress Meghan Heffern as Ashley, Erik's new love interest. The character of Tracy had things to do, and was presented as a separate plotline running through the movie, but Heffern is not so lucky, only showing up sporadically throughout, when the plot has nothing better to do than focus on Erik and his love life rather than Dwight and his boring antics. Heffern makes the best of the situation by being effortlessly, consistently charismatic, even in the face of terrible body fluid jokes. Admittedly, one of these moments provides the movie's only funny moment (only funny shot, actually, of Erik desperately trying to grab a strand of CG semen in slow motion -- so sue me, I laughed), but the entire movie I desperately wished I was watching Heffern in something better (even American Pie Presents: The Book of Love).
The plot clunks around, eventually turning into more of a half-assed Animal House riff that melts uncomfortably into the movie's equally bad Nerds thievery. It's around this time that Eugene Levy makes his scheduled appearance, saying his lines and being...present...with the utmost professionalism. I have already forgotten any developments that happen to Erik or Dwight by the end of the film, and I only watched it three days ago. If you had asked me after Beta House, before The Book of Love was announced, whether I'd like to see another, I'd probably have said no. But Book of Love proves that the series' (and its obviously esteemable legacy) isn't permanently tarnished.
Then again, at this point, what does American Pie even mean? Not only has the series been ransacked for a quick buck, but in an age where comedies about sex are everywhere, we probably don't need another one, especially since the subjects -- teenagers -- have their bases pretty well covered themselves. There have been rumors recently that an eighth American Pie> would go back to theaters, and maybe even reunite some of the original cast. I'm not holding my breath, but it might be nice to see: one last round with characters we may have grown up with, just a little, to send the series out on a reasonably respectable note.