American Pie’s heart was never really in the pastry poking

American Pie’s heart was never really in the pastry poking

With Run The Series, A.A. Dowd examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment. 

For a series whose defining image is a guy fucking a pastry, American Pie has always made getting off seem less like a compulsion than a burden. When the first and still best of the films was released in the summer of 1999, those looking for a point of comparison reached for the bawdy teen sex comedies of the ’80s. But it wasn’t a perfect fit. Porky’s and its ilk saw youth as a hedonistic blowout bash—a time to act before thinking, to use one head instead of the other. The Pie movies, by contrast, are all about dudes who can’t stop thinking. It’s not some overactive libido that sends these virginal heroes racing for the finish line; they want to get laid, because they fear they should have already. Sex is a benchmark that must be crossed, lest one enter adulthood behind the curve.

I was 15 when the original American Pie opened in theaters—a little younger than the film’s graduating class of characters, but still old enough to relate to Jim (Jason Biggs), the good-natured dork with the severe lack of game, Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), the earnest boyfriend who never says the right thing, and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), the young philosopher who’s less sophisticated than he thinks he is. I couldn’t really relate to Oz, the jock of the group, but neither, it seemed, could the actor playing him: Saddled with some unconvincing Neanderthal dialogue (“If there’s any channel that should be illegal, it’s that all-woman channel,” is his first line), Chris Klein only finds his groove after his supposedly macho character gets in touch with his sensitive side.

On a whole, these awkward adolescents seemed more credibly insecure, more believable in their sexual anxiety, than the usual crop of teen-movie archetypes. Those of us who spent high school trying to work up the nerve to even talk to the opposite sex could squint and see a little of ourselves in the movie’s fumbling foursome. But relative “realness” does not a box-office smash make. American Pie scored with audiences by mating a deeply sentimental coming-of-age story—built around an irresistible premise of four friends’ pact to lose their virginity by prom night—with the trendy gross-out humor of the previous summer’s There’s Something About Mary. Screenwriter Adam Herz may have modeled the narrative on his memories of high school, and the setting on his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, but he also shaped those ingredients into a crowd-pleasing, easily replicated recipe. American Pie was franchise-ready from the start, a point that becomes clear after tearing through its three inferior sequels (two of them written by Herz himself) and four dreadful spinoffs.

Even at 15, as a member of the movie’s hormonal demographic, I could see how formulaic Pie was—how, for example, its big set pieces (or sex pieces, as it were) arrive on cue every few minutes, like the kill scenes in a slasher movie. But time has been kind to the film’s reputation: Now as old as I was when it was first released, it seems to have entered the teen-movie canon, securing a spot alongside the similarly beloved Fast Times At Ridgemont High. (As a friend of mine recently pointed out, the scene of Shannon Elizabeth undressing in front of the webcam is as formative to one generation of horny young viewers as the Phoebe Cates scene in Fast Times is to another.) Nostalgia is a powerful thing, but it doesn’t always carry, which may explain why no one holds the sequels—even the solid second installment—in especially high regard.

The series is organized around milestones, with each new entry pivoting around a different life event. American Pie 2, which played to big crowds in August of 2001, picks up a year after the prom night of the original, reuniting the gang for more raunchy rites of passage after their first year in college. Rather than take the obvious route and simply put a Pie spin on the campus comedy, part two follows Jim, Kevin, Oz, Finch, and—by presumed audience demand—class dipshit Stifler (Seann William Scott) to a lake house for the summer. Rather than invent a new love interest for nominal lead Jim, the film reunites him with his band-geek prom date Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), who voraciously and unexpectedly took his virginity at the end of the last movie. Their fairly charming romance, set up as a kind of sexual Pygmalion, provides the setup for American Wedding, in which Jim and Michelle’s several-years-later wedding is nearly ruined by Stifler. (Oz does not appear at all in this sequel; oddly, he is never once mentioned either.) Next came 2012’s American Reunion, which made the very odd decision of bringing everyone back together for their 13-year high school reunion, rather than just fudging the numbers and calling it the 10-year reunion.

From a humor perspective, the Pie sequels get staler and staler, subjecting Jim to increasingly tired masturbation mishaps—superglue on the dick, laptop closed on dick—and simply recycling and rehashing Finch’s amorous encounter with Stifler’s mom (Jennifer Coolidge, whose cougar-ish role in the films helped ease the term “MILF” into the lexicon). Yet, even as the comedic returns continued to diminish, the series preserved a certain emotional resonance. Fear of inadequacy, and of not maturing at the proper pace, runs through the whole franchise. The guys spend most of part two fretting that they’re still lagging behind their peers, having failed to increase their conquest count since prom night. In Wedding, Jim takes dance lessons, throws a disastrous dinner party, and stresses about every small detail of the ceremony—all in an attempt to prove to the bride’s parents, and maybe himself, that he’s a real adult. Similarly, Reunion finds the guys lamenting their separate situations, the widening gulf between how they envisioned their lives and how they’re turning out. Despite its ostensibly juvenile interests, American Pie deals rather consistently—if sometimes cornily—with the very adult problems of dissatisfaction and disappointment.

One of the more interesting aspects of the series is its halfway-successful attempt at equal-opportunity raunch. Unlike the horndog yukfests of the Reagan era, American Pie explores the desires of its female characters too. In the original, it’s the ladies who know all the right moves: Teenage mentor Jessica (Natasha Lyonne) doles out wise advice to her clueless classmates, while Jim is objectified by both Michelle (Hannigan) and his foreign exchange-student crush Nadia (Elizabeth), the latter of whom flips the script on his voyeurism by forcing him to perform an impromptu striptease. (Granted, the very idea of Shannon Elizabeth lusting after Jason Biggs seems like a male fantasy.) Pie 2 has its own version of that reversal of gaze: A pair of comely roommates are mistaken for lesbian lovers, and promptly spearhead a game of tit for tat, promising to fool around if Jim and Stifler will do the same. Is the movie confronting the biases and expectations of its hypothetically straight and male audience? Or is just treating the sight of two men kissing like another “gross out” gag? Either way, the scene is more provocative than anything in the next two sequels, which respectively treat a pre-Mad Men January Jones as a mere prize to be won and reduce the once-adventurous Michelle to a tired, nagging shrew.

As for the Pie movies’ periodic explosions of bodily fluid, they’ve always felt a little forced and desperate—an attempt to disguise the franchise’s old-fashioned earnestness with “outrageous” shock gags. (It’s hard to believe that a movie as sappy as American Pie had to fight not to earn an NC-17.) At heart, these are deeply, sometimes embarrassingly sincere movies. Until Reunion, which drums up a couple of preppy high school scumbugs and slut shames one of its love interests, the series couldn’t even bring itself to feature actual villains. The closest those first three movies come to a “bad guy” is perennial frenemy Stifler, the sexist, id-driven boor whose rivalry with Finch provides some of the biggest laughs. Stifler suffers a lot of abuse for his awfulness: guzzling a jizz-spiked beer, scarfing down a dog turd, taking an inadvertent golden shower, etc. (And that’s to say nothing, again, of his anguish over Finch’s reoccurring rendezvous with his mother.) Yet, Scott is such a terrific, consistent laugh-getter that the filmmakers increased his role exponentially with each entry. He’s practically the hero of American Wedding, whose single inspired idea is to come up with a deceptive alter ego for the character, a gee-whiz nice guy he plays to get the girl.

Stifler’s presence on the periphery of the main friend group becomes a reoccurring plot point, the others trying and increasingly failing to exclude him from the festivities. Every consecutive film seems to soften the boys’ stance on their raging-asshole classmate, with Reunion going as far as having Jim climactically claim him as “our asshole.” The character’s growing importance to the franchise narrative is surely a product of his popularity. But it also speaks to the way relationships evolve and change over the years, people growing up and grudges fading away. In their formulaic and often sophomoric way, the American Pie films aren’t so different from something like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy: Both chronicle relationships across a sprawling chronological canvas, leaping ahead to catch up with characters at later and later dates.

The actors, meanwhile, get both older and better, sinking more comfortably into their roles, even as the later sequels sometimes struggle to find things for them to do. (Oz, for example, spends large portions of the second movie on the phone with his choir-champ girlfriend Heather, played by Mena Suvari, while Kevin doesn’t even have a subplot in Wedding.) Maybe the most unconvincing thing about the original American Pie was buying that these four guys, so different in personality and interests, were actually friends. What common ground could a star athlete like Oz really share with a hopeless snob like Finch? But by the fourth entry in this probably-not-finished series, the four really do seem like friends—a group of men who have grown and changed together, their bond stronger even than the erotic draw of a warm dessert fresh out of the oven.

Watch: American Pie; American Pie 2

Skip: American Wedding; American Reunion

Related materials: Though Stifler may be the comedic highlight of the Pie sequels, the creative team behind each was smart enough to recognize that he works best as a foil, not the main attraction. No such deep thinking went into the execution of the straight-to-DVD spinoff films, several of which star a member of the extended Stifler clan—and all of which are irredeemably awful. Band Camp (2005), the first of these chintzy brand extensions, casts Tad Hilgenbrink as younger brother Matt Stifler, who spends a torturously unfunny 87 minutes doing a bad imitation of Scott’s perpetual smirk. The other films in the unfortunate side franchise— The Naked Mile (2006), Beta House (2007), and The Book Of Love (2009)—are no better. Swiping soundtrack selections (Good Charlotte, “The Anthem”) and entire gags (PB&J instead of pie) from the franchise proper, these shameless cash-ins are comparable in barrel-scraping badness to the National Lampoon home-video releases. Pity a slumming Eugene Levy, reprising the role of Jim’s hilariously supportive and understanding dad. His mortifying pep talks are the lone highlight here, even if it makes little sense for him to be giving them to a bunch of horny kids who aren’t his son.

Next up: Batman (1989–1997)

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