American Pie (1999)
Directed by Paul Weitz
Cast: Jason Biggs, Chris Klein, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Mena Suvari, Tara Reid, Alyson Hannigan, Natasha Lyonne, Shannon Elizabeth, Seann W. Scott, Eugene Levy, Jennifer Coolidge, Chris Owen, Lawrence Pressman, Molly Cheek.
1999 95 minutes
Rated: (for raunchy humor, profanity, nudity, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 11, 1999.
Like last year's sleeper hit, "There's Something About Mary," or "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," first-time director Paul Weitz's "American Pie" is an outrageous comedy that gets its kick out of being as raunchy and shocking as ever, in the confines of an R-rating. It's unfortunate, however, that "South Park" was just released because no movie, I think, could measure up to the tastelessness that that film had. Still, amidst all of the buzz on "American Pie" concerning its envelope-pushing humor, in essence what we really have here is a surprisingly sweet sex comedy that, unlike many recent "teen"-oriented pictures, is frightening in its realism of teen life. There are no blatant cliques to be found in the film's Michigan high school of East Great Falls, at least not of the popular type, no overly snotty teens that are as one-dimensional as a drawing on a piece of paper. No, instead what we have are just anonymous high school students dealing day-to-day with their raging hormones and budding relationships. Sure, there are the jocks (who, interestingly, play lacrosse rather than football); the singers in the glee club; the band, just as in a real high school, but their personalities are rarely ever exaggerated to fit a certain mold. That is exactly the element of "American Pie" that was most appreciated, but don't get me wrong. It's a laugh-riot, too.
The premise is very simple: Four friends about to graduate from high school in a few weeks make a pact to lose their virginity by prom night, particularly when it appears that Sherman (Chris Owen), one of the nerdiest people in school, had sex at a party. The film's main character of the four is Jim (Jason Biggs), a likable, horny lug who nonetheless fails miserably with practically every person of the opposite sex he runs into, and is constantly being caught by his parents pleasuring himself. He first sets his sights on the beautiful foreign exchange student, Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth), but plans go awry when he has an embarrassing encounter with her that is accidentally transmitted via internet to the whole town. Desperate for a date to prom, he settles on the band geek, Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), whose every sentence that comes out of her mouth starts with, "and this one time, at band camp..."
Oz (Chris Klein) is the "jock" of the four friends. He plays lacrosse, and whenever with a woman, feels like he has to throw a bunch of corny lines her way. Hoping to meet someone, he joins the chorus and finds that he actually begins to like it, and like the sweet, innocent Heather (Mena Suvari), as well. Something Oz doesn't anticipate in their relationship, though, is that he would really begin to care for her, and grow a more honest heart, which he also starts to do.
Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is the only one in the group with a steady girlfriend, Vicky (Tara Reid). As he tells it, they've only gotten to third base, but are beginning to have serious thoughts about going all the way. But first, Vicky wants to hear him say, "I love you," three words that Kevin personally feels should not be thrown around lightly.
And, finally, Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is a clean freak who runs home from school each day just to go to the bathroom ("Have you seen the facilities they have here?!"). All of the girls at the school begin swarming around him mysteriously, thanks to some rumors that the wordly Jessica (Natasha Lyonne), the advice-giving non-virgin of the group, is paid to spread around to help Finch out.
In the pantheon of teen comedies, "American Pie" doesn't come close to measuring up with the '80s John Hughes flicks, like "Sixteen Candles" (still my favorite), "The Breakfast Club," or "Ferris Buellers Day Off," nor is it quite as satisfying overall as the recent "10 Things I Hate About You," but this film is actually different than those. Focusing more on the 'sex' aspect, rather than the romance one (even though there is a bit of that too), "American Pie" is more reminiscent of the various '80s raunch-fests, like "Porky's" or "The Last American Virgin." The one vital difference, however, is that this latest picture is unusually intelligent and cleverly written for the disreputable genre, and has a lot of heart, even as someone is portrayed as unknowingly drinking a beer someone has just sexually released themselves in.
As Jim, Jason Biggs is a real find, an everybody guy that many people his age will most likely be able to relate to, including the desperation of a boy of 17 or 18, and the humility he gets when his caring father (a very funny Eugene Levy) is constantly finding him in the most uncompromising positions (including, yep, in the infamous "pie scene").
Also, those actors that should be additionally noted (this movie is going to make many of them stars, I suspect) are Chris Klein, who is absolutely charming here, just as he was in last spring's brilliant high school satire, "Election." Klein's impending romance with Heather, played memorably by Mena Suvari, is the film's direct emotional center, and one of the most important things to attribute to the pic's success. Natasha Lyonne ("The Slums of Beverly Hills") is underused, but clearly one of the most talented in the cast, and every scene she is in shines.
But the one person who stands out from among the crowd, who creates the unforgettable character I will easily remember for years to come, is Alyson Hannigan (TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), as the annoying flutist who never stops talking about her experiences at band camp. Hannigan is a comic delight, a marvel to behold who should gain a lot of further film work thanks to this thought-to-be dim character who is hiding a secret of her own.
If only "American Pie" had been about a half-hour longer, the film's rating may have skyrocketed up to an even higher plateau, which is rare for a small-budgeted teen comedy. With so many characters, many of them are not developed to their full potential, but there is no doubting that they are all fine up-and-coming talents. But still, for the debut directing/writing team of Paul Weitz and Adam Herz, and for the umpteenth film just this year alone that climaxes at the high school prom (if you are thinking right now what I'm thinking about that last phrase, you're very naughty), "American Pie" manages to come off as, dare I say it, somewhat fresh. Forget those safe, little PG-13 teen movies. As Hannigan said in an interview, a teenager's life is NC-17 rated, and far from PG-13. Credit Weitz and Herz for realizing this, and for Universal Pictures not backing down on the R-rating, as the film never once talks down to its target audience, but listens to its characters and portrays them in an oh-so-real light.
Oh, I almost forgot! A particular line of dialogue towards the end comes straight out of left field and is so utterly shocking, especially for the "innocent" character, that I suspect it will be quoted by the teen generation for many, many years, and is worth the full price of admission alone. It also happens to be the biggest laugh I've had at the movies all year.
©1999 by Dustin Putman