Saturday, January 9, 2010

Franchise Legacy: American Pie (Part 1)

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.

It's been (more than) ten years since the release of American Pie, and with the release of the seventh American Pie film direct-to-DVD (with talks of the eighth going to theaters), I started to wonder how much the modern R-rated sex comedy has been affected by the series' existence.

For me, the '90s felt like a decade swamped with parental boundaries and implied "good taste", but I was growing up in the '90s, so my opinion is probably biased. It may be shocking given my love of film, but I spent those years sheltered from the "racy" content of R and even PG-13 movies (there's a reason I haven't seen so many classics -- I didn't get into movies until I was 16, when my parents finally gave up). The moviegoing public had their tolerance for violence raised by slasher films of the 1980's and by mainstream R-rated action films like Terminator 2 (not an extreme example of violence, just a fairly bloody movie that was widely accepted as "okay" for younger audiences -- at least, going by how many people my age I know who saw the film in theaters). The barrier for foul language was similarly lowered by "South Park", which started airing on Comedy Central a few years before American Pie, which stirred up a big fuss among parent groups at first (do those even exist anymore?), but was eventually forgotten in the face of its exponentially expanding popularity.

Sex, though, was still taboo. These days, thanks to the internet taking over, the worry that films and television are going to be the source of extreme content has all but vanished; if someone made Showgirls today, I doubt anyone would care, but what vague memories I have of the 1995 release of Showgirls was a fair amount of controversy over the basic inability to mask or cover up Verhoeven's subject matter thanks to the movie's NC-17 rating, and not the film's million-dollar screenplay.

Whether or not a combination of timing and execution is unique to American Pie itself (i.e., if not Pie, would something else would have come along?), the first movie's success still seems to have finally opened that door, tackling even more brazen topics than those covered by There's Something About Mary, a door which Hollywood has subsequently taken advantage of. In the 1980's, teen sex films like Porky's, were not only commonplace, but massively profitable, and there's nothing the industry likes more than a reliable source of cash flow, and American Pie's revival of the formula has had, I think, a noticeable impact on society. I'm not necessarily saying that American Pie is the reason you can print "va-jay-jay" on a magazine cover sold in supermarkets or that they'd be censoring the title of The Vagina Monologues if the film cans had burned on the way to the printing lab, but I do think the first film played a part in helping along the public consensus that sex had become a commonplace topic. Today, it's almost bizarre to think that a film like American Pie was ever controversial, but I don't think a television censor would have allowed a video like "I'm F---ing Matt Damon" to air in 1993, or that The 40-Year-Old Virgin would have been a blockbuster in 1996 (at least not with the same title), and I'm willing to venture that it's because of these movies, if only in some small way. Even the MPAA doesn't seem to care: I always find it interesting that they allow films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Date Night to put what are essentially blowjob and masturbation jokes into greenband trailers, especially since they tried to give Clerks. an NC-17 just for language in 1994.

Again, there are (currently) seven American Pie movies. Four of them are direct-to-video releases, and I certainly hope Eugene Levy is enjoying the fruits of the deal he made with the devil to shamelessly embody the half-hearted stab at series legitimacy each "American Pie Presents" offers up (although I guess it could be worse: Chris Owen also returns for the fourth film, and it's extra-embarrassing). Thanks to "The Franchise Collection" and "The Threesome Pack", the first six unrated DVDs can be conveniently nabbed in two nice-looking box sets, which I have procured and proceeded to watch in order and reviewed, because apparently I don't have anything better to work on. As an added bonus, I've also got "American Pie Revealed", a massive 3 hour and 18 minute documentary about the making of the original theatrical trilogy, which I'll (EDIT: maybe) throw in a review of as well.

Here goes nothing...

American Pie (1999)
Despite everything I wrote about American Pie above, it wasn't until I watched it for this article that I finally saw what was special about it. Maybe it's enduring years of perceived fallout from the series, perhaps it's just getting older and identifying more with where the filmmakers' heads were at when they were making it, or maybe it's just that my attention span developed enough to focus on something other than dick jokes (or at least multitask and focus on more than just dick jokes), but this time through, I really enjoyed it.

Horrified by the sight of reknowned uber-nerd Sherman (Chris Owen) walking a hot girl out the front door the morning after a party thrown by their friend Steve Stifler (Seann William Scott), high school seniors Jim (Jason Biggs), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), and Oz (Chris Klein) make a pact to lose their virginity before prom. Character motivation like this falls somewhere between contrived and ridiculous, although to the film's credit, nobody inside the film's story or out seems to take the "challenge" aspect of it very seriously. It's more of an agreement than a pact, and there's never any literal or perpetual clock ticking down in the background because there are no real consequences suggested for failure (other than loserdom).

A point sorely missed by the MPAA amidst their insistence on tagging American Pie with the NC-17 rating four times is the picture's consistently light-hearted tone. The scene where Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) takes off her top is easily the most famous scene in the movie, but viewed within the intended context, the focus is always on the characters. Lest one also forget, it's also a well-written, well-acted, well-edited, well-directed setpiece that holds up ten years later as very funny, thanks to primarily to Jason Biggs, who throws himself around, covered in flop sweat, with and without clothes on, without a hint of shame. Biggs gets a bad rap these days (a really bad rap), and admittedly, in a movie like American Pie, it's hard to quantify how much of the film -- if any -- requires actual acting (i.e. inhabiting another character, emoting, etc.). Regardless, I have always thought of him as a reasonably talented physical comedian, and his performances in the American Pie movies are good examples. Most people remember the webcam sequence for Shannon Elizabeth, but as memorable as she is, I always think of the somersault Biggs manages to land while diving over his hedge after running frantically back to his house at the prodding of his friends, and his ridiculous, hilarious dancing.

I also feel sorry for Mena Suvari. For one, they chose to use the world's worst photograph of her on the front of The Franchise Collection, which is a shame (here's four much better ones), and two, aside from American Beauty, other hits have eluded her. Like Biggs, she doesn't have to plumb any emotional depths to play the role of Heather, but I find her almost endlessly charming. Heather gets paired with Chris Klein's Oz, and Klein walks a fine line between good and bad (future roles have revealed a great deal of bad). During Oz's first attempts to connect with Heather, he fakes his sensitive side, and it's enough strain on Klein to be called upon to act, much less called upon to "act" while acting. How any girl would fail to see through his over-the-top, soft-spoken routine in a second is an unresolved mystery. But Suvari almost effortlessly guides this plotline along, making it one of the more endearing stories in the movie.

Within the film itself, though, it's Thomas Ian Nicholas who gets the short end of the stick. His character is forced to contemplate all the "bigger" issues, and the lame relationship stuff he goes through with Tara Reid's character Vicki (do couples really have a huge, yet cutesy problem with saying that they love one another? If someone I knew said "She said the 'L' word to me today!", I think I might be speechless) doesn't ring true to me. I do think the character provides a touch of realism that the other characters often don't; with Kevin around, the movie's broad comedy contracts a litle (in a good way), but the effectively-created friendship between Kevin, Finch, Oz and Jim is the only effective part of Nicholas' otherwise bland character. Casey Affleck, on the other hand, is pretty awesome, so it's nice to see him pop up briefly as Kevin's wiser older brother.

For a film closing in on its eleventh anniversary, it's aged pretty well; I watched the movie Spring Break for DVDTalk, and despite its charms it felt phenomenally antiquated. American Pie's webcam stuff is going to become a bit old-fashioned thanks to the march of technology alone, but that bond, the friendship between the four lead characters, is really at the heart of the movie, and the mechanics of friendship haven't changed much in the 24 years I've been alive. Even the other teen comedies I've liked in recent years (such as 10 Things I Hate About You or Orange County) have rarely been focused on friendship as opposed to romance, and it's sort of clever how Chris and Paul Weitz and screenwriter Adam Herz have buried a movie about best friends inside a typical teen romantic comedy shell.

American Pie 2 (2001)
In the sequel, the gang returns comes back to East Great Falls in the summer after their first year in college, and they find that the comforts of home are a little dull. Inspired once again by Kevin's brother, the five guys opt for a change of scenery, driving down to the coast and shacking up in a spacious beach house where they can party to their heart's content. While Jim was probably the most prominent role in the original, the sequel specifically and obviously focuses on him as a main character, and with Nadia's return looming, Jim enlists the help of Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), his band-geek prom date from the first movie, to improve his technique in bed.

Call me a big sucker for caring about the characters from American Pie, but I do, and the development of Jim and Michelle's romance is really what puts the sequel up against its predecessor for me. I admit, this is a dopey R-rated comedy sequel with Superglue and ass-trumpet gags and whatnot, but Jim's actions at the climax of the film actually warm my heart a little (even, against all odds, despite the 3 Doors Down song that chimes in). My investment in the moment can be easily chalked up to Biggs and Hannigan, who have enormous chemistry together. I like this sequel, so I'd probably rank most of the characters as faring the same, but I'd have to say that Hannigan's material as Michelle actually gets a little better, no doubt because her character was sort of a throwaway joke in the first movie.

I also like American Pie 2 as a pure comedy. The original might be a slightly better movie with all the relationship material in it, but American Pie 2 doesn't bend over backwards to match it, focusing on solid, B+ teen comedy instead. There are still a few missteps when it comes to the script (the movie forcefully involves all of the players from the original, and when it comes to story beats, there are several strong whiffs of sequelitis), but director J.B. Rogers just lays the movie on the shoulders of his able cast, and the comedy plays just fine. The movie's famous CB radio scene and Jim's adventures as "Petey" at band camp, for instance, are not forced through writing but scenarios in which the characters' reactions are the joke, and it works.

Just beneath the surface of these gags, that distinct bond between the characters is still intact, and it's enjoyable just watching this group of guys and gals hang out with each other again. I could pass on the movie's rehashing of Kevin's wistful sadness (even less effective than in the original, although the original pass at this beat, as seen in the deleted scenes, is even worse), I think the Rule of 3 is a pretty dumb theory, and the return of Matt Stifler (Eli Marienthal) has little bearing on anything, but then a sequence like the aforementioned Superglue scene starts (which Biggs, again, performs with no shame, even sticking a doorknob in his mouth, which looks and sounds bad for the teeth), and I'm willing to forgive these flaws. American Pie 2 isn't a home run, but it's a solid double, and to that end, it fares far better than any of the sequels to follow.

American Wedding (2003)
Disappointingly, the third film in the franchise can't live up to the modest bar set by the first two movies for one reason and one reason only: the exhausting return of Steve Stifler. Even in American Pie 2, Stifler functioned like a supporting character, but this time, the infamous nature of the character apparently proved irresistable to everyone involved, and he unfortunately takes center stage.

First off, Seann William Scott's performance is remarkably bad. Stifler's schtick in American Wedding reeks of sad, lonely desperation in a way that might've been uncomfortably funny and even fitting for the character if anyone within the film ever acknowledged it. Nobody does, of course, and Scott prances around, letting out a forced cackle every time someone (mainly himself) mentions sex or says something awful. The experience is worsened by the strain it puts on the viewer to see something so resoundingly unfunny being treated as if it were comedy gold. Even well-concieved, less-grating scenes like Stifler getting into a dance-off at a big-city gay bar aren't enough to justify enduring the rest of the character's flop-sweat-covered moments. He's like a robot that got damaged in the middle of a bad Jim Carrey impression, with his moronic toothless grin contorting itself on and off of his face at random (watch him react when Biggs tells him to leave at the beginning of the third act: what the hell could be going through Scott's head?).

The element that almost saves the Stifler character is the "reasonably-clever-if-only-in-a-comedy-movie" plot where Stifler tries to act like a wholesome young man in front of Michelle's sister Cadence (January Jones), while Finch conversely takes on the persona of a foul-mouthed jackass. If Scott was bringing his American Pie 2 game to the table, this thread alone might have made the movie funnier than its predecessors. As it is, it's just an amusing idea that the movie manages to lose before the 90 minutes are up without escalating or building to some sort of grand finale the way it should. The scene where Stifler is forced to eat dog shit is also a big, big miss (although, I've since seen a less funny, more disgusting shit-eating scene in the mega-bomb Year One, so take that as you will).

The short end of the stick I said Thomas Ian Nicholas was holding before manages to get even shorter. The actor looks unsure of what he's meant to be doing the entire movie, which is a completely justified reaction, since Kevin is barely there, like a loose wheel the verge of being edited out of the frame. Nicholas mostly appears to be waiting; maybe he's expecting the other shoe to drop, convinced that at any moment someone will walk up and tell him to go home. I hate to say it, but watching American Wedding, I miss the element that Chris Klein brought to these movies. I can see how cutting Mena Suvari, as much as I love her, might have made sense; she's not really Michelle or Jim's close friend, she's only acquainted with them because she's with Oz. It's a shame, though, that the producers decided Oz was equally useless, because he's no more or less useless than Kevin, without Kevin's insistent need to go introspective near the end of each movie. Not that the script needs to dump Kevin in favor of Oz, either: the more characters there are, the less time there is for Scott's agonizing performance.

Another curious mistake is the fact that American Wedding looks like something. Nothing wrong with comedy directors bringing visual flair to an otherwise drab experience, and I'm certainly not saying that the movie should look ugly, but the 2.35:1 widescreen presentation and refined cinematography are both too unlike the previous movies. It's distracting to see implied dog sex antics and the frantic covering-up of a strip bachelor party in richly-lit scope. American Wedding basically feels classier than anything occuring within it, and the viewer spends more time looking at the shot than catching the sight gags.

For Part 2 of this article -- the dreaded direct-to-video sequels -- click here.

1 comment:

  1. This is nice, a thoughtful accounting of a couple films that I only watch to see Mena Suvari play such a straight character.