Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Film Appreciation - Used to Never Think You'd Ever Grow Old

Cody Hamman bakes some Film Appreciation for 1999's American Pie.

American Pie is now a couple years older than its main characters, a realization that's a bit disconcerting to me because when this movie was first released those characters were my peers. They were slightly older than me, class of 1999 while I was class of 2002, but they could have been kids I went to school with... if I had gone to high school instead of being homeschooled. So I could relate to them and their mindsets.

The '80s were packed with great teen comedies, but when the genre had a bit of resurgence in the late '90s it seemed watered down compared to what had come in the decade before. There were still some great movies in the mix, but they were PG-13 and family friendly. The raunch of the '80s was largely missing. But American Pie was one of the films that brought the raunch back, and it was appreciated. It was among the first grossout comedies of the late '90s, helping pave the way for a whole wave of grossout comedies that went even further... making this one, in retrospect, look kind of quaint even though it has toilet humor, a shot of a sock-enshrouded boner, and a scene where a character vomits after accidentally drinking a cup of beer that someone has ejaculated into. But it also contains one of the most famous grossout scenes of all time, when a guy who has been told that vagina feels like "warm apple pie" decides to try to experience that sensation by humping an actual apple pie. Then he gets caught in the act by his father.

That guy is the hapless Jim (Jason Biggs), who is caught in awkward situations by his parents and especially his father (played by the great Eugene Levy) multiple times throughout the film. Jim is one of four seniors at East Great Falls High who have made a pact to lose their virginity by the end of the school year, and they are convinced that their best chance to have sex will be on prom night, which is three weeks away at the beginning of the film.

The others in the pact are Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), who is too intellectual and eccentric to appeal to the girls in their school; Oz (Chris Klein), who hasn't had sex despite being a lacrosse jock because his approach to the subject is awful, like when we see him tell a girl to "Suck me, beautiful"; and Thomas Ian Nicholas as Kevin, who is in a relationship with a girl named Vicky (Tara Reid) but she won't go all the way with him.

Kevin can't bring himself to tell Vicky he loves her, but he figures that he'll get her to have sex with him if he manages to give her an orgasm during one of their everything-but-intercourse sessions. Not knowing how to accomplish that, he turns to his older brother Tom (an uncredited Casey Affleck in a cameo) for advice - and Tom tells him about a "Sex Bible" that is hidden in the school library and contains tips that have been passed down from class to class.

Trying to seem more sensitive, Oz joins the school choir and meets a nice girl named Heather (Mena Suvari). Finch tries to get his female classmates interested in him by spreading intriguing rumors about himself. Jim might have a chance with European exchange student Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth)... but then again, he might be stuck going to prom with band geek Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), who only talks about band camp.

The trouble with movies like this is that they tend to have aspects that age poorly. Animal House has questionable elements when viewed now, Revenge of the Nerds does, Porky's does, etc. American Pie is no different. While Nadia was a breakthrough role for Shannon Elizabeth, her biggest moment is now one that people shake their heads at. Nadia makes plans with Jim to come over to his house so he can tutor her in world history, but she has to go there straight from ballet practice - which means she'll have to change clothes at his place. Hearing that Nadia will be disrobing in Jim's home, Jim's friends convince him to switch on his webcam and broadcast her nudity to them. This sort of thing was part of the teen sex comedy formula back in the day, this was 1999's version of characters being peeping toms and drilling holes in shower walls, and it would not make it into a film now. The plan does backfire when the broadcast turns out to be extremely humiliating for Jim, but the initial plan to film Nadia naked without her consent is quite creepy and wrong.

Beyond that, most of the humor in American Pie does still work, and the characters - aside from their creepy webcam scheme - are likeable enough that it's enjoyable to spend time with them. Which explains why they were brought back for three sequels. Well, Oz is bland and Kevin often comes off like a douche, but Jim and Finch are cool. While being the least traditionally cool of the bunch.

Levy is endearing and hilarious in scenes where he makes uncomfortable attempts to coach his son through this time in his life, and other memorable characters include Vicky's confidante Jessica (Natasha Lyonne), Chris Owen as a classmate named Sherman, John Cho and Justin Isfeld as a duo who popularized the term MILF, Jennifer Coolidge as the MILF they lust after, and... this is a big one... Seann William Scott in his film debut as obnoxious jock Steve Stifler, who is a huge fan of himself and a complete pain in the ass to everyone around him. Scott gets a lot of laughs as this detestable character and turned him into something of a comedy icon.

This was a big studio film, released by Universal, but it came from a bunch of beginners - Paul Weitz and his uncredited brother Chris Weitz made their directorial debuts here, working from a screenplay by first-timer Adam Herz. They all did quite well, and the Weitz brothers have both gone on to direct several more films, but none of them were American Pie sequels. The script is so well written, it's puzzling to see that Herz has very few writing credits beyond this. He wrote a couple of the sequels, created a very short-lived TV show, and that's it. Why aren't there more movies written by Adam Herz?

American Pie is a lot of fun, and will always have a special place in my heart because it's a teen comedy movie that connected with me when I was a teenager myself. This movie was a big deal to me back in '99 and the early '00s, I saw it when it first hit theatres and then bought a copy as soon as it reached DVD. I have a fond memory of watching that DVD with friends in December of '99 while we were taking a break during the filming of a dopey little movie we were shooting on VHS.

Now for an odd observation: I noticed this in '99, but it stood out to me even more watching the movie in 2020... it is surprising how sweaty the characters are, even in scenes where they're just sitting around. Biggs had heat stroke filming a scene that required him to run through a neighborhood, and that bit of trivia totally makes sense given how often the actors are seen glistening with sweat. There should have been more toweling going on during this production.

No comments:

Post a Comment