A stroll down mammary lane: rewatching the American Pie films

Tuesday April 17th 2012

It’s been thirteen years since the faux-teenagers at the centre of American Pie first came together to drink irresponsibly, deposit bodily fluids into various receptacles and realise their adolescent fantasies with a little help from Logitech. Now after two theatrical sequels, four (yes, FOUR) straight-to-video entries and countless movies in which Seann William Scott played Stifler under a different name, the gang are back together for one last anarchic, thirtysomething, $50 million dollar blowout. I rewatched the series yesterday to get my bearings.

1999 / 95 minutes
$11m budget
$235m box office

Often misremembered as the definitive 90s raunch movie, American Pie is actually a remarkably coy affair — notable more for its quaint premise (remind me again why Chris Klein’s lacrosse jock is a virgin?) than its crude transgressions. It works as well as it does because the central cast — equal parts male and female, lest we forget — are all so uniformly endearing. Yep, even Tara Reid.

There’s also a remarkably low level of vanity amongst the leads. Long before he was demanding executive producer credits on these movies, a 21-year-old Jason Biggs was happy to wander around looking SWEATY AS FUCK for the majority of the runtime, as were his (male) co-stars. Turns out Kelly M. Beatty is one of American cinema’s great unsung naturalists.

2001 / 108 minutes
$30m budget
$287m box office

Our second encounter with the Class of ’99 is unashamedly similar to (but way slicker than) its predecessor, transposing the action from a high school to a summer house but maintaining most of the narrative beats from the first movie. It’s nice to see that the cast have grown into themselves a bit though, especially Jason Biggs and Seann William Scott — the latter now a bona fide teen icon after two years’s worth of lead roles in films like Final Destination, Road Trip and Dude, Where’s My Car?.

And with the development of the Jim/Michelle romance, the film transforms a throwaway joke character into one half of the most engaging relationship in the series. It’s the only thing that redeems the hopeless anticlimax of the ‘party to end all parties’, which turns out to be little more than a room full of bored extras swaying from side to side with red cups in their hands.

2003 / 96 minutes
$55m budget
$231m box office

Maybe it was the timing, or the increase in frontal nudity, but I remember really liking American Wedding when I first saw it. In hindsight, it’s not a masterpiece. Despite the return of series creator Adam Herz as screenwriter, the film’s not half as smart as American Pie 2, and the change is most evident in Stifler, whose magnetic, endearing hateability has mutated into something far more moronic. And with Chris Klein conspicuously absent due to ‘scheduling conflicts’, The Stiffmeister is unwisely pushed into a lead role, complete with a love interest in the form of January Jones.

It’s not all bad. A refreshingly good-natured gay bar scene recalls the second film’s smart treatment of homosexuality, and you’ve got to give the filmmakers credit for at least changing up the formula rather than re-hashing the narrative of the first film yet again. But on the whole, the franchise’s most expensive entry is also its most disappointing, and not even an unexpected move into the 2.35:1 aspect ratio can excuse that.

2012 / 113 minutes
$50m budget
$227m box office

After five times their usual hiatus, you can forgive the cast for looking a little haggard in this, their fourth (and hopefully final) outing. The plotline is up to its old tricks, reintroducing the traditional ‘three party narrative’ from the first film, except with a reunion in place of the prom. Chris Klein is back, as are the four lead female characters who were so hastily uninvited to the Wedding, but they’re not given much to do and (in marked contrast to the first movie) American Reunion is a Bechdel fail through and through.

There’s a sense that jokes are being repeated — both from earlier Pies and elsewhere (a hindsight joke about Ricky Martin is suspiciously similar to one about Elton John in Cemetery Junction) — but tonally American Reunion is closer to Hall Pass or The Dilemma than its own ancestors. There’s something quite disorientating about an American Pie movie in which the main source of conflict seems to be ‘too many women want to have sex with us’.

Luckily, the film does have one trick up its sleeve: its treatment of ageing. Like the Can’t Hardly Wait sequel that Peter Facinelli wants to make, American Reunion works best when it’s pointing out what’s changed, and worst when it’s pretending nothing has. So while Jim’s obligatory ‘masturbation mishap’ scene is starting to wear a little thin, something as simple as the reintroduction of Stifler’s high school lacrosse buddies — now planning their civil union — works like a charm.