“American Reunion” this week. “The Cabin in the Woods” next week. Some manner of nonsense for a couple weeks after that. Summer can’t come soon enough.
I remember first seeing the trailer and experiencing the hype for “American Pie” more than 13 years ago. These days such projects are commonplace, with studios wedging as many creatively vulgar sex gags as humanly possible into anything and everything. But back in the more innocent times of the late ’90s, the prospect of an unapologetically crude teen sex comedy seemed fresh and bold.
Expectations were surpassed when it became clear that the film wasn’t merely a vehicle for raunchy humor (though it certainly was that as well), but also a surprisingly touching and emotionally mature teen love story that wore its heart on its sleeve. The movie was a tremendous success, launching a franchise that thus far has produced three sequels and four direct-to-DVD spin-offs. More importantly, it was instrumental in setting the standard for character-driven gross-out comedies in the decade that followed, and it is almost inconceivable that filmmakers like Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips would be successful today without the template provided by “American Pie.”
Well, that was then and this is now. The franchise’s luster has long since faded, with creativity and fearlessness replaced by utter stagnation, and the last few “American Pie” movies have been indistinguishable from the empty-headed twaddle that the original film was revolting against in the first place. So what to do? Apparently the answer they came up with is “American Reunion,” an exercise in nostalgia that has been advertised as a Gen-Y take on “The Big Chill,” but in the end amounts to little more than a high-concept cash grab.
The movie opens on Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), the charmingly geeky couple whose wedding served as the plot of the last theatrically released “American Pie” film. An elaborate (but not particularly funny) opening masturbation gag establishes their marriage as sexless and mundane, both of them having fallen into the numbing void of parenthood and “adult responsibility.”
The rest of the gang is having their own issues adapting to life at 30: Oz (Chris Klein, who should cherish this moment because it is unlikely that he will ever act in anything ever again) has pursued his dream of moving to L.A. to be a sports commentator, but finds the high life unfulfilling. Stifler (Seann William Scott), the big man on campus in high school and college, has found that his constant shenanigans don’t translate well to an adult work environment, and struggles as a low-level temp. Even Jim’s dad (Eugene Levy) has hit rough times following the death of his wife, finding himself more or less abandoned by his son and living an empty life of crushing loneliness.
These hardships coincide with a belated high school reunion, which Jim and company see as the perfect opportunity to recapture the sense of freedom and promise they enjoyed in their youth. Of course, hijinx ensue: The gang butts heads with a local group of trouble-making teens, culminating in an admittedly hilarious defecation gag; Jim catches the eye of a neighbor girl he used to babysit, and must fend off her increasingly frenzied sexual advances; and inevitably, Jim becomes the subject of further public humiliation by way of yet another sex-based debacle, this time involving S&M bondage gear. After a while, the film seems to abandon a traditional narrative flow in favor of a constant parade of sexually debauched set pieces (or “sex pieces,” if you will), with very little substance to string them together.
In the end, I’m not sure who the film will appeal to. Certainly not 30-something fans of the first two movies, who will go into it expecting a similarly light-hearted, character-driven bit of naughty fun but will instead find a relatively dark and joyless barrage of unnecessarily explicit sex gags (I’m not usually one to say this, but sometimes less actually is more). And probably not younger viewers, who will respond to more of the humor but fail to appreciate the film’s nostalgic overtones.
It must be said that “American Reunion” improves upon “American Wedding” (and presumably the direct-to-DVD releases, though I cannot say as I have not nor ever will see them), but it is still far below the bar set by the first two films. Perhaps in another decade we’ll see “American Midlife Crisis” and the filmmakers can have another shot at nailing that elusive mix of nostalgia and crass comedy. Until then, though, I think perhaps the past is best left in the past.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.