For better and for worse, the resurgence of the teen sex farce genre of cinema (after it faded back into obscurity in the late 1980s) can be traced back to one movie, 1999’s American Pie. Now considered one of the definitive mainstream comedies of the late 90s, it was difficult to know just how influential (once again, for better and for worse) this movie would be. Fourteen years later, knowing everything that’s come after, it’s impossible not to see the blueprint left behind by this flawed but still deeply enjoyable film. In an experiment in comedy storytelling that few have tried to match, we’ve seen these characters grow now for fourteen years, and this was our first piece of the pie.
What makes American Pie work (when its jokes, acting, and occasional casual misogyny threaten to tear the film apart) so well compared to many of its peers is the emphasis the film put on character in addition to its endless scattershot gags. No one would ever confuse American Pie screenwriter Adam Herz with Kenneth Lonergan, but unlike many of the more gag-driven teen comedies to come, the boys and girls living in this world feel relatable. Their concerns are bigger than just having sex, and though the film falters on more than one occasion (consistent humor only comes from a handful of characters), American Pie has aged better than the careers of most of its stars.
With only a month left of high school, four best friends are desperate to lose their virginity. Socially awkward Jim (Jason Biggs) is more likely to be caught masturbating by his parents than to get any real action, although the cute Czechoslovakian foreign exchange student Nadia (Elizabeth Shannon) seems to have eyes for him. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) has a steady girlfriend, Vicky (Tara Reid), but they can’t seem to make it past third base, and with college on the way and both lovers heading to separate schools, Kevin knows that he doesn’t have very long to seal the deal. Oz (Chris Klein) wants to move past his reputation as a dumb jock and to work on his sensitivity, he joins the school jazz choir where he meets the cute Heather (Mena Suvari). And lastly, the want-to-be sophisticate Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) has to figure out a way to fit in with his intellectual and cultural inferiors.
After an embarrassing evening at the house party of the obnoxious and crass Steve Stifler (Sean William Scott), the four make a vow to lose their virginity by graduation. And of course, it’s easier said than done. Realizing prom is their last shot, each boy concocts a scheme to bed the girl of his choosing by that fateful night, but they find themselves in awkward sexual and personal mishaps along the way. Jim tries to have sex with a warm apple pie, Stifler drinks a beer with a special ingredient, Kevin learns the finer works of performing oral sex on a woman, and Oz realizes that becoming the sensitive guy will be a lot harder than just joining jazz choir.
It’s not Shakespeare. It’s not even Judd Apatow, but American Pie is an uproariously funny movie when all of the pieces fit together. As the series learned by the sequels (and I honestly believe American Wedding is the best film in the bunch), Jason Biggs’s Jim is the emotional heart of the franchise, and the most consistently funny moments in the film (i.e. the parts where I was laughing so hard I woke my sister up from a nap multiple times) are being Jim and his father (Eugene Levy). In one of the most hysterically realistic portrayals of father/son sex talks in the history of cinema, Jim’s dad tries to teach Jim on the finer points of condoms, pornography, masturbation, and sex, and they made me laugh so hard I started crying.
The rest of the movie’s humor doesn’t always work as well (though other characters have their moments that work too). The franchise’s love of scatalogical humor begins with Finch’s inability to use the bathroom in a public place, and it climaxes in one of the movie’s grosser and more overtly unfunny moments. Kevin gets in on the humor when he goes down on his girlfriend which climaxes (in more ways than one) with a most appropriate and gut-busting play on words. And, Vicky’s friend Jessica (Natasha Lyonne) provides a feminist counterpoint to the mostly male-dominated humor of the film (and who can forget Alyson Hanigan’s classic quip at film’s end)
I’ve always been bothered by the fact that the film never really addresses (unless American Reunion does which I’ve not seen yet) how wrong it was of Jim to videotape a naked Nadia and broadcast over the internet (even just to his close friends, ignoring that it was sent to everyone at their school), and the films’ casual misogyny is present in other places. Kevin is supposed to be the likeable guy in the group, but he treats Vicky like shit most of the film with little real consequence. Finch seems to be the only member of the group whose dishonesty and mistreatment of women gets any real comeuppance (and it mostly has to do with pissing off Stifler, not how he lied to women).
Also, sadly, there’s a reason that outside of these films, most of the cast never really had careers later on. Jason Biggs, Eugene Levy, Alyson Hannigan, Natasha Lyonne, and Thomas Ian Nicholas hit all of the right notes, but many of the other performances fall flat. Chris Klein is an actively bad actor. His performance during the film made me uncomfortable because of how stilted and wooden it is. And, his partner Mena Suvari, who is otherwise a serviceable actress, takes her cues from Klein and is as stilted and wooden as he is. Tara Reid is also a criminally awful actress, and the American Pie films were probably the last role of note she ever had.
I can’t believe I just wrote 1000 words on American Pie, but as a film that was very much a big part of my adolescence, it’s an important movie to me. I do not think American Pie is a great comedy. But it’s a very good one despite it’s consistent missteps. It’s get a lot more right than it does wrong, and when it finds the voice that works best for it, it’s a hilarious look into those years as a teenager where sex dominated your mind more than anything else. If you’ve somehow not seen American Pie and you can enjoy it’s very raunchy sense of humor (and it helped launch raunchy comedies back into prominence), take a trip with Jim and his friends.
Final Score: B+