Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Final Piece of Pie...Reminiscent of the Good Old Days

American Reunion isn't a perfect movie, although I doubt anybody is expecting it to be. However, while I was watching it, I couldn't help but think that the writers and others behind the movie's creation do two things extremely well: they stay relatively loyal to what a viewer of the original American Pie movies would come to expect from a sequel and treat the movie like a (somewhat) legitimate reunion.

For all intents and purposes, this movie is a giant wink-and-you're-welcome to the first two films. In fact, in some ways, it skips right over some of the character developments featured in the third movie, American Wedding (which lacked about a third of the original cast), so that we can get back to the characters we originally cared about (if that's what you can call it). But I'll discuss the American Wedding dynamic in a little bit.

Basically, when it came down to it, I cared (still, if that's what you can call it). Honestly, I got into it and appreciated it for what it was. It was pretty interesting to see what was going to happen and how everybody was going to interact with each other. In other words, while I was watching, I completely bought into the whole reunion thing. How could you not? They, at one time or another, brought back just about every character of any relevance from the first two movies, with the notable exception of Jim's mom, who is now deceased in the American Pie world and wasn't necessarily a character whose happenings you followed anyway. And with that, you can basically say that every relevant character we followed throughout the first two movies was back.

After watching the movie, I kind of mentally divided it into two parts: everything involving the reunion and everything else. Basically, I liked the reunion stuff, and the non-reunion stuff was just meh.

For the reunion part, we get to see Jim, Kevin, Oz and Finch together for the first time in about a decade (probably slightly after whenever American Pie 2 happened in the timeline). And before they join up at a bar a few days before the actual reunion, we get to see what all of their lives (with the exception of Finch) are like now.

Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) are stuck in sexual inactivity, due partially to the amount of time they devote to their 2-year-old son. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is a work-at-home architect and husband to his breadwinner wife. Oz (Chris Klein), whom we haven't seen since the original sequel, is a host on an ESPN knockoff station and dating a beautiful (read: shallow) supermodel (Katrina Bowden). When we first see Finch, he races in on a motorcycle, spinning stories to his friends of world travel. The common theme among them is the facade they each try to construct that they are exactly where they want to be in their lives.

At this point, we are reintroduced to the friendship we knew from the beginning of the first movie, the group of friends who made a pact to get laid before graduation. Serving as a parallel to the first two movies, it only makes sense that this parade is intruded upon by none other than their douchebag-cum-friend Stifler (Seann William Scott), whom they mention wanting to avoid when they meet up at the bar. Similar to the other four, Stifler's life isn't everything he wants it to be. Despite an introductory scene of him traipsing through an office like he owns the place, we learn that Stifler is merely a temp at an investment firm. When he eventually shows up - depressed - at the same bar as the other four, he is initially pissed but then settles in to his Stifler-ness and begins seeking ways to integrate himself into their weekend activities.

From here, each of the characters we follow run into their own conflicts.

The most realistic of these conflicts, to me at least, is Kevin's. In a way, Kevin is the character throughout the series whose situation has always seemed the most grounded in reality. In the first two movies, he wants to have sex with his girlfriend, Vicky (Tara Reid); after they break up, they spend the sequel working through awkward sexual tension after not seeing each other for a year. In this movie, Kevin and Vicky see each other for the first time in a decade and feelings come rushing (ehhh....trickling) back. After a brief awkward situation - Kevin wakes up naked next to Vicky after a night of drinking, finding out later it had downpoured and she just took care of him - they agree it was nice seeing each other again, he goes back to his wife and she goes back to her life in New York. As I said, I feel like, with the exception of the waking up naked thing, Kevin's storylines always end up being the most realistic. However, that could also be because his storylines have always been the most devoid of humor (not necessarily a bad thing). As a result, these two characters get the least (and least interesting) screen time.

Oz runs into former girlfriend, Heather (Mena Suvari). Basically, he shows up with his hot (read: shallow) model girlfriend, and she shows up with her hot (read: shallow) boyfriend (played by that Better Off Ted guy). Since, as fellow blog writer Frank puts it, Oz was in many ways the traditional romantic hero of the first movie because he ultimately won the girl, we want to see these two characters together again. And this movie serves that a big slice of telegraphed pie. Of course, it's kind of OK because, in essence, that is what the viewer wants. Where this movie steers in the wrong direction (a point I know Frank agrees with) is trying to make him one of the "funny" characters. None of that really happens in real time, of course; instead, we see it with him acting weird on his TV show or overdoing it on a DVD of the Dancing with the Stars knockoff he was on. However, we, as viewers know that Oz has come a long way from the "Suck me, beautiful" guy he tried to be at the beginning of the first movie, and trying too hard to make him funny makes the situation seem a bit disingenuous.

Finch has always been a character of more subtle, yet existent, screen humor. He's not as in-your-face as Stifler and not constantly put in awkward hijinx like Jim, but he's always been more interesting than Oz and Kevin, at least as character traits go. However, the character always kind of ends up as a joke, eventually having adult relations with Stifler's mom at the end of each film. I liked that this movie seemed to humanize him a bit and give the character just enough time for his situation to seem partially realistic. This movie wisely drops the Stifler's mom punchline and lets him start a real relationship with Selena, a formerly unattractive friend of Michelle's from band with whom they went to school; of course, we never saw her in previous films, but she was apparently in that world the whole time (like Scott Bakula in the third Major League movie). Eventually, Finch admits to his friends that he hasn't been a world traveler and eclectic idol, but merely a store assistant manager who has been overlooked for a promotion. Of course, this is an American Pie movie, so the characters don't communicate the easy way. He only spills the beans once he is arrested for stealing his boss' motorcycle (the realism fades a little, though, when there's no evidence of him being fired for doing that). To me, Finch has always reminded me of the Paul Reiser in Diner - obviously one of the guys but doesn't really get his own story or discernible character traits - but the movie did a better job this time around of normalizing him, for better or worse.

Jim, for all intents and purposes, is the main character of the American Pie movies. But he hasn't always been the emotional character he becomes by the end of the second movie. When the series begins, Jim is an awkward guy so overwhelmed by a bad case of naivety that he copulates with a pie, accidentally broadcasts himself double-pre-ejaculating in front of the hot exchange student and gets used for sex by a band geek. Eventually, he develops feelings for that band geek and vice versa, they get married and have a kid. Now Jim, as well as Michelle (who went from side character to one of the leads), is a character in whom we are emotionally invested. Therefore, we now just want to see the terrible situations in which he is placed blow away. As with most of the storylines, the couple's wilting sex life is a situation that could easily be alleviated with some good old-fashioned communication. But that doesn't happen because this is an American Pie movie. So we need to get through some hijinx before everything turns out OK.

Now as realistic as it is for their marriage to have their speed bumps, the hijinx filler ends up being a little formulaic and by-the-numbers for my liking. As any viewer of this franchise knows, each movie has at least one scene of nudity and one scene of anxiety-filled chaos. We get this via another thrown-in character, Kara, the girl next door whom Jim used to babysit. Basically, she gets drunk at a beach party Jim accidently shows up at and tries to take advantage of him on the ride home. She eventually passes out, and Jim recruits Finch, Oz and Stifler (they really hate giving Kevin screen time in this movie) to help him get the now topless Kara back inside her house. There are parts that are funny (Stifler's snarky asides) and those that aren't (Kara's mom dancing on Oz), but now you just feel bad for Jim. This isn't the naive kid who stuck his penis in a pie. This is a fairly mature husband and father who is trying to work on his marriage and, instead, gets thrust into a terrible situation. Everything obviously ends up OK but it kind of ruined my reunion buzz for a little bit.

And then we have Stifler, a character that I would argue has grown leaps and bounds less because of his character and more because the actor playing him can deliver comedic lines like nobody's business. Back in the first movie, he was a side character a la Fonzie in the first Happy Days season; by the third movie, he became one of the main characters.

And this is where I'm torn. In the third movie, the character has an emotional arc. He becomes a (slightly) better guy, wins over Michelle's sister and is in the wedding (just take a look at the
movie poster). Now, the guys seem to want to avoid him, which I found a little weird at first. Of course, the points have been made to me that a) the Stifler character seems to be stuck in a constant state of immaturity that keeps him from moving ahead as a person/employee/character, b) the four friends probably rarely get the opportunity to just hang out with a group and don't want him to drive the experience to the extreme and c) it sets all of them up for the end when they realize they like and even need him in a way ("You're our dick.").

One way or another, though, Seann William Scott knows how to chew scenery and chew it well, but in a way that is enjoyable and appropriate for the movie. And, if nothing else, the Stifler character inherently brings with him the proclivity for unecessary (read: necessary) high-stakes situations, such as destroying the speedboats of Kara's boyfriend and his friends (and pooping in their beer cooler) simply because "They splashed us!" With the other characters seemingly more mature, it's good to have Stifler to balance it out.

I've already spent a great deal of type (probably too much for an American Pie movie), so I'll just zip through the other characters. It was kind of cool seeing the Sherminator, Nadia and the MILF guys (half of whom is John Cho, who undoubtedly is friends with the directors, who also made the Harold and Kumar movies) again. But I really respected that they only brought in Natasha Lyonne's character, Jessica, at the reunion. Although she was always around, she really only ever served as a tool to push along the stories of Finch or Kevin and only ever seemed to be close with Vicky, who has been in New York for a decade. There would have been no reason to have her traipsing around, especially since the movie didn't really follow any of the female characters (you can only make a thin argument that we follow Michelle).

We also get a large dose of Jim's dad (Eugene Levy) in this film. Like Seann William Scott, Levy knows how to deliver, whether with a line or with a well-cocked eyebrow. And like Stifler, Jim's dad has now become a character we follow. Sad about the loss of his wife, Jim's dad just wants to spend some quality time with his son. Now throughout the series, a common trope involves Jim's dad giving Jim advice for an awkward situation in as awkward a manner as possible. In this movie, we get one of those, as well as an opportunity for Jim to give him advice. After that, we get treated to one of the more inspired pairings of this series: Jim's dad and Stifler's mom. It's kind of a throwaway gag, but it's pretty funny and always cool to see people act together whom you assume are already friends (through Christopher Guest movies).

One thing I kind of dug about this movie is that it kind of makes you forget there were so many straight-to-video sequels for this franchise. Of course to discuss this movie in terms of comparisons, it is best to first strike the straight-to-videos from your mental filmography. Then you have to dance slightly around the continuity of American Wedding. It is relevant in the timeline because, obviously, Jim and Michelle get married. But other things about AW are glossed over or ignored in this movie, such as the change in the perception of Stifler I mentioned earlier, the fact that Oz wasn't in it (that's more of a casting thing, really) and Michelle's sister. But in glossing/ignoring, the writers, directors and actors are committing to the reunion atmosphere, which I appreciate.

Some quick gripes:
  • This happens with a lot of movies and TV shows because it helps extend conflict needed to make stories seem interesting. But most of the story arcs could have been easily solved with conversation: if Kevin talks to Vicky when he first wakes up next to her, if Finch just trusts his friends, if Jim talks to his dad about his marital problems, if Jim just says to Michelle and Selena "I don't have any pants on" when he wakes up half-naked on the kitchen floor and they walk in (but then there wouldn't have been any screen time for co-star Jason Biggs' Penis). So on and so forth.
  • This is only a half-gripe because it didn't bother me too much, but just about everything in this film is telegraphed. We know that Jim isn't going to cheat on Michelle with Kara. We know that Stifler is going to somehow get revenge on Finch (he has sex with his mom). We know Oz and Heather are going to get back together and that Kevin and Vicky won't. We know that Stifler is going to take Heather's boyfriend out to live up to his "our dick" status. But who cares? We're only watching this movie because we care at this point. We want to see what we feel is best for these characters. And, for the most part, all of the characters are at peace by the end.
Finally, there were a few extra parts in the movie that I either appreciated or that made me laugh (some were meant to be humorous; some were just things I noticed):
  • I liked that the basic thread that kept all of their stories relevant was that none of them were exactly where they wanted to be in life, a feeling reunions can bring out in people (or at least that's what TV and movies tell me, as I have yet to go to any myself).
  • When a movie juggles so many characters like American Reunion does, there are going to be crutches. One of the funniest ones to me is that Vicky has been in New York for 10 years. It's pretty funny that we don't know anything else about what she is doing, like her job or whether she is in a relationship. Instead, by saying she's in New York, we just assume she has a fulfilled, successful life.
  • The only guy who wasn't in the American Wedding movie was Oz (here's a pretty cool interview with Chris Klein about that, by the way). And they try to slide past that fact with a quick line from him saying, "I missed your wedding, but I'd never miss this." It's a tacky, thrown-in line that didn't bother me at first. Then I looked at it again and it made me laugh at the fact that it looks like Oz cares less about his friend's wedding and more about his 13-year reunion.
  • And, oh yeah, it's their 13-year reunion.
In all, though, I liked it. I mean, if you spend 3,000 words writing about something, you have to like it, right?