With the East Great Falls High's "class of '99" reuniting in UK cinemas this week, Si's Sights And Sounds looks back at the film that started it all...
The first time we see the nerdy, insecure hero of American Pie, Jim (Jason Biggs), he’s been “caught in the act” of literally pleasuring himself to some illegal channels. Viewed today, it’s very difficult not to contrast it with a similar moment featuring The Inbetweeners’ Jay Cartwright. It’s as if, just like comedy writers Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, Pie scribe Adam Herz knows exactly what makes both young people tick and audiences laugh. And, with the help of film-making brothers Chris & Paul Weitz, he adds just enough humanity to create a comedy with heart, one that no amount of imitators and inferior sequels can quite diminish.
What makes American Pie – for the uninitiated, the simple story of four high school students who strive to lose their virginity before they graduate – work today is actually rather different from what made it work at the time of release.
The humour that was seen as seriously raunchy and envelope pushing thirteen years ago actually comes across as pretty tame by today’s standards. Many of the “iconic” moments and quotations have been overplayed to the point of annoyance. Some of the actors, particularly Seann William Scott (Stifler) and Chris Owen (Sherman), are so limited that they’re almost painful to watch. (We laughed at Owen’s “Shermanator” more than a decade ago; nowadays, we wonder how any high school student can possibly talk like that.) And that’s the least of it; the “happy ending”, where our four heroes all achieve their Holy Grail of getting laid (that’s not spoiling much, is it?) has been accused of being both misogynistic and hypocritical, a gross-out comedy suddenly transforming into a conventional male wet dream.
What the detractors are missing is that, like The Inbetweeners, American Pie is actually quite respectful towards its female characters. As the Weitz brothers once stated in an interview, it’s the girls who are “in control” here. Look out for that knowing smile from choir girl Heather (once and future American Beauty Mena Suvari) as she watches sports jock Oz (Chris Klein) practise singing to impress her. Watch how hard it is for normal bloke Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) to win back the favour of his girlfriend Vicky (Tara Reid) once she gets wind of his rather crass ambitions. And watch how intellectual Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) twice has to rely on the knowledgeable Jessica (Natasha Lyonne) to save him from what would otherwise be embarrassment on Prom night. Not forgetting that, unlike Jim, band camp babe Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) clearly knows what she’s doing come the “big moment”.
American Pie is also a rarity in that it not only acknowledges how tough the rite of passage is (mainly, getting laid) but also the consequences of such a time. Contrast, for example, Kevin & Vicky with Oz & Heather. At the start of the movie, one couple are already in a stable relationship and the other don’t even know each other. By movie’s end, both couples have consummated their love – but while it’s a new beginning for Oz and Heather, it feels like the beginning of the end for Kevin and Vicky. As Vicky puts it near the end, “Nothing is perfect. You can’t plan everything”. Those words are given extra meaning by the time the credits roll.
In the midst of all this, both Herz and the Weitz brothers never lose sight of their main aim – to make us laugh. Some of the film’s best comedy is just as effective today, especially Jim’s chats with his Dad (Eugene Levy), Stifler’s revenge on Finch, and Stifler’s little “accident” with spiked lager.
There’s also plenty of under appreciated moments, like Oz and Heather’s initial nervousness when talking to one another, the look on Jim’s Dad’s face when he realises his son is growing up, and the lads’ sudden realisation that “getting laid” is not the be all and end all.
Despite the overplayed gags, dated cultural setting, occasional wooden acting and the odd dead spot, American Pie has retained its endearing nature over the years. Its heroes may not have been the most engaging characters in teen film history, but they struck a chord with audiences at the time, one that has resonated to this day – to the point where Universal Pictures have called them all back for a Reunion.