Teen Sex Comedy of the Week: “American Pie”

February 4, 2007

In planning this week’s installment, I began to wonder, “why is it that we like teen sex comedies in the first place? Why does society (loosely defined as Hollywood, the NFL, the United States House of Representatives, and William Gaddis) value this sub-genre of the teen movie, this paragon of pre-pornographic playfullness? What is the perspicience [rare; Keen or clear perception; insight] of the genre?”

In an essay called, “Sex and Violence,” Yesterday’s Salad’s own 0375400109.jpgPeter Bogdanovich (I bite your eyes!), whose film “The Last Picture Show” is the adult forerunner of the teen sex comedy, wrote, “If the glory of a good movie is that it suspends one’s sense of disbelief, that it makes you forget you’re watching shadows on a wall and puts you instead into a world of illusion and magic, then the graphic portrayal of sexual intercourse on the screen will never work, since it is almost impossible to forget one is watching people doing something private publicly.” Big-screen pornography fails because we are removed from the illusion, and removed from voyeurism. We can watch Brandy Taylor, but we are not with Brandy Taylor, an illusion further ruined by the presence of other viewers. Bogdanovich goes on to say that he believes the only time sex really works on film is in comedies.

The reason sex works so well in comedies is because it plays on the audience’s insecurities. The first time with any partner is riddled with anxiety and bound to fail in some way. Comedic representations of sex, those that play with these insecurities, don’t remove the illusion. The act may be public, but the experience is so recognizable, such an integral moment in the bildung of the individual, that we are able to identify. Jim’s failures with Nadia in American Pie, though over the top, are still a fundamentally recognizable moment in the American-youth experience.

American Pie revived the teen sex comedy. There were nary a teen sex comedy in the years immediately preceding American Pie, whereas after American Pie we were treated to Road Trip, American Pie 2, Tomcats, Van Wilder, EuroTrip, The Girl Next Door, and others. At the time I thought that American Pie was one of the funniest movies I’d seen in a while. Not quite as funny as There’s Something About Mary, or South Park, both released the same year, but certainly much funnier than Big Daddy. Now, rewatching it, I realize that many of the jokes don’t bear repeat viewing, but that the movie succeeds because of its plot, and recognizable characters. Ebert wrote in his review that, “its characters are sort of sweet and lovable. As I swim through the summer tide of vulgarity, I find that’s what I’m looking for: Movies that at least feel affection for their characters.” The characters in American Pie are well-imagined. We may not understand what brought all these archetypal high school characters into the same social orbit (notably, how losers like Finch and Jim get invited to Stiffler’s parties), but we can tell that they really are friends struggling with external pressures and the pitfalls of emotional rather than hormonal attachment. Perhaps that’s why the later movies suffer. Stifler, good comic relief in the first movie, is given a major role despite the fact that he is the least identifiable or emotionally resonant of the group–indeed, his jocular pretensions are antithetical to the foursome’s misplaced midwestern values. Oz, the bridge character between the worlds, fails in his attempts to be like Stifler, botching his bequest of the post-modern Feminist major to “Suck me [him], beautiful.” At heart he truly wants to find love.

One last note before I go to the categories: the film’s structure is actually quite interesting. Kevin, the group’s ringleader, has his major conflict within the first act of the movie, and triumph’s over his sexual inabilities at time when the other characters are just beginning to struggle. In the end, when Kevin and his girlfriend copulate, we learn that Kevin’s technical performance problems were a ruse, and there’s no escaping the emotional complexities of love and separation. His conflict, and his conflict alone, carries into the next movie, where it is the most identifiable of the challenges. Perhaps the sequel falters because the other characters have lost their joie de vivre.

Cast and Creators (4.5/5)

This is probably American Pie‘s greatest feature. All the actors are well-picked. Rookie of the Year reclamation project Thomas Ian Nicholas plays a good Kevin, and Chris Klein, Sean William Scott, and Eddie Kaye Thomas all succeed at their parts. Jason Biggs performance stands out for its emotional vitality, eventually attracting the attention of Woody Allen, who enlisted Biggs to play the Woody Allen character (passably, I might add), joining Kenneth Branagh and John Cusack as Allen imitators. Tara Reid performs well, as do Natasha Lyonne, and Mena Suvari. Alyson Hannigan’s Michelle is top-notch, and it’s easy to see why the franchise eventually centered around her and Jim. It was ably written by Adam Herz, and directed by the Weitz brothers who went on to do About a Boy, and In Good Company (a good and disappointing movie respectively). Overall, a lot of good talent.

Comedy Quotient (3.5/5)

American Pie is still funny, but it definitely doesn’t hold up as well as many other movies. Some of the lines remain sharp, but many of the more notorious moments (Jim’s Sock, Stifler drinking the “Pale Ale”) lose their bite. Eugene Levy’s performance seems to get funnier and funnier over the years, and I’ll probably keep watching the franchise until he leaves it for good. My favorite part of Band Camp was the ridiculous way they explained his appearance, and I hear that his appearance in 5 is equally ludicrous.

Plausibility of Plot (4.5/5)

Why not? With the exception of the Nadia-Jim webcast, none of the moments are too far fetched. Even then, the biggest caveat I have with that scene is anachronistic; Internet streaming was just not that good in 1999. There’s really nothing so unreal about a couple of horny teenagers trying to get laid and playing pranks on each other.

Nudity/ Sexual Hijinks (3/5)

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Really just the Nadia sequence, but it’s long and well done. It’s also relatively extreme for a mainstream movie, involving stripteases, pornographic reading material, and a voyeuristic monkey. Serious bonus points for scoring Shannon Elizabeth in her prime. The rest of the movie has lots of frank and funny discussions of sex.

“X” Factor (4/5)

The “X-Factor” for American Pie is its remarkable emotional depth. Fast Times at Ridgemont High had depth, but that was largely the result of dealing with more serious subject matter, such as teen pregnancy. The fact that American Pie is able to transform itself into a believable love story (take that She’s All That!) is surprising and endearing. In the end we care enough about the characters to want to see them get married and grow up.

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5 Responses to “Teen Sex Comedy of the Week: “American Pie””

  1. notwithabangbutawhimper Says:

    My one reservation with your review is the 4.5 for the cast and creators. While the cast of the film as a whole was quite good, especially the father/son bits between Biggs and Levy, it would have been entirely possible to excise the entire subplot featuring Chris “I’m so pretty” Klein. Not only is he the most expressionless actor and his character the most forgettable in the bunch, his subplot is entirely lacking in any point. Honestly, who would think that the choice between sleeping with Mena Suvari and playing in the lacrosse final is really a difficult, weighty matter?

  2. blahblah Says:

    i love it

  3. JTC Says:

    I agree that what made this movie great was the heart and depth of the characters. When I watch this move it’s like visiting with old friends. I also agree that Jim’s father makes the movie. His ability to understand and support his son through a host of unbearably embarrising situations adds to the warmth of this film.


  4. You guys are awesome 🙂 keep up the good work.


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