Friday, April 20, 2012

American Reunion Serves A Welcome Helping of Nostalgia

Almost every character of note from the first movie
makes a return appearance in American Reunion.
While watching American Reunion, I was reminded of Rocky Balboa, the sixth and (fingers crossed) final entry in Sylvester Stallone’s successful boxing franchise.

Like that film, American Reunion overcomes passages of clunky mediocrity and the pointlessness of its existence by offering up loving nostalgia and a well-meaning examination of the passage of time. Prior experience with each series is not necessarily required for these films, but one expects that both play better with goodwill in tow.
It’s worth noting that I bring that goodwill to the table for this review. I was only 13 when American Pie came out, far younger than the core group attempting to lose their virginities in the film, and yet, the whole thing played like gangbusters when I saw it in theaters. That was back in a time when theaters were getting stricter about R-rated movies, but my cousins and I still got in unsupervised on the strength of a waiver form from my aunt.  Glad we did – it was probably one of the best times I’ve ever had in a theater.

Rose-colored glasses aside, I actually do objectively hold the first Pie in pretty high regard. It’s easy to pooh-pooh the film now (especially in light of its two inferior sequels and four generic direct to DVD spinoffs), but it is actually pretty damn perfect for what it is. Unlike many of the R-rated teen comedies that followed in the wake of its success, American Pie was not just good for laughs – it also brought it on the story end, offering a pretty poignant take on the high school experience (albeit through the guise of low-brow humor). And while most members in the cast have not blown up in the way that many in Hollywood hoped/predicted in 1999, they were all perfectly cast in their various roles.
The sequels had nothing to say, and the stories were flat at best. They were basically concerned with being funny, and so beefing up the role of Stifler and diminishing or phasing out the more earnest/vanilla characters helped make them passable entries.

A teen in the film derisively refers to Jim as Adam
Sandler, which made me laugh.
I expected the same thing from this movie. However, I was surprised to discover a little bit of thematic heft lining the peripheries of the various plot lines. As Steve said in his review, the film’s creators do a nice job instilling a reunion vibe into the proceedings. This results in almost every character from the first film making an appearance (even minor ones like Nadia, the Shermanator and the MILF guys), as well as plethora of callbacks to previous jokes – so many, in fact, that whole thing begins to feel like a band camp story (remember… that one time… in the first movie). It also results in an examination of where people tend to find themselves at 13-year reunions (We’re told it’s 13, not 10, because the east Great Falls High couldn’t get it’s act together for three years).
In all, each main male character gets some semblance of a story (as has always been the case in this franchise, women get the short shrift). That includes the four original virgins (Jason Biggs’ Jim, Chris Klein’s Oz, Thomas Ian Nicholas’ Kevin and Eddie Kaye Thomas’ Finch), as well as the series’ two breakout characters – Stifler (Seann William Scott) and Jim’s Dad (Eugene Levy).

Each story is generic and telegraphed, but, in general, that works out okay. Yes, Jim’s dad gets a lame outfit changing montage, but Levy hits some nice emotional beats concerning the death of his wife and pairing him with Stifler’s mom (Jennifer Coolidge) is just a good use of comic resources. Meanwhile, the Finch and Stifler stuff is perfectly calibrated. Given how diametrically opposed these characters have been throughout the series, it was a nice touch to have their conflicts mirror one another – Stifler worries his friends have passed him by, while Finch is ashamed he’s only just kept up. And although it’s shoehorned in, it was an inspired idea to have Stifler bed Finch’s mom (Rebecca De Mornay).

The other three threads find Oz, Jim and Kevin trying to navigate romantic relationships. Now a famous sportscaster who has also featured on a Dancing with the Stars-type show, Oz has a wild model girlfriend (Katrina Bowden) but still pines for Heather (Mena Suvari). Jim and Kevin are both facing marital difficulties – Jim and the formerly voracious Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) haven’t been connecting in the bedroom since the birth of their son, while Kevin is somewhat henpecked by his wife. Other women complicate these issues, as Jim contends with Kara (Ali Cobrin), an 18-year-old he used to baby-sit that wants him to be her first, and Kevin reconnects with Vicky (Tara Reid).

Pairing Stifler's mom and Jim's dad marks one of the
film's better ideas.

None of these plotlines go much beyond the surface. Of course the current mates of Oz and Heather have to be total d-bags – it would all be too complicated otherwise. And, it’s no spoiler to say Jim and Kevin remain faithful to their wives and that their stories are either wrapped up easily (the solution to Jim and Michelle’s issue is… wait for it… to make time for each other) or altogether swept under the rug (guess those henpecked hints were just easy jokes not setup for anything). I’m not advocating that infidelity would’ve made these stories better, but there was an opportunity to do something interesting here by showing struggles of some kind, but the filmmakers don’t bite.

That being said, this is an American Pie movie, not some indie drama. Although the first was somewhat cutting edge upon release, the series is actually rather subdued and conservative for its genre. There's a formula to this series – opening Jim humiliation scene, mid-movie Jim humiliation scene, mid-movie nudity scene featuring hot chick(s), syrupy ending where the guys make each other feel better and then go party – and this movie doesn't attempt a shake up. And that's actually OK. The bottom line is that the movie offers a relatively consistent amount of jokes (although I do wish all comedy involving Oz had been cut – brutal stuff), and, despite the generic nature of it all, the drama has a certain effectiveness.
These guys seemed believable as friends 13 years ago, and with real-life history shading the onscreen camaraderie, they’ve somehow managed to improve on that aspect at least. Combined with the laughs, that’s enough to make this a worthwhile farewell to the East Great Falls High Class of ’99.