Thursday, April 12, 2012

AMERICAN REUNION: One More Slice of "Pie"


- Was the first American Pie ever all that great? Certainly, it was a pop-cultural touchstone of the late 90's, and it had its moments, comedy-wise. But a classic? A movie with a legacy so lofty that it's worth getting excited about a nostalgia-laden sequel almost fifteen years later? Not really ... not necessarily. So if you go into the vulgar, silly American Reunion looking for some sort of game-changing comedy, a pseudo-serious meditation on growing up and ditching the old ways of adolescence for the more mature perspective of adulthood ... look elsewhere. Instead, American Reunion is a funny film that pays homage to the original while adopting the more slapsticky, gross-out gags of the sequels. In other words, it's a pretty dumb movie, but also a pretty darn funny one.

Maybe at some point in time, the American Pie franchise was considered an of-the-moment slice of teen pop. But as the years went on - as the cast's Q-ratings cooled and as various theatrical and direct-to-DVD sequels were churned out, AP became more and more about shock value, about seeing just how many crude sex jokes could be crammed into one film. And for better or worse, American Reunion is sort of the pinnacle of that evolution (or devolution?) - it's the raunchiest, silliest, grossest American Pie movie yet.

Luckily, I am a fan of a good sex joke and enjoy gross-out humor when it's done well. And so, even when things got pretty over-the-top, I laughed. In fact, I laughed pretty consistently throughout the film. Because while the character stuff can be a bit messy and hamfisted, the gags are quite frankly as good as ever.

The American Pie franchise is lucky to have a couple of comedy MVP's at its core. And it's funny to see how good some of these actors still are, and, by the same token, how much some of the core cast's weaknesses feel exposed and magnified over time. But let me start with the good. Jason Biggs is back, and he's still a really funny guy. His unflinching earnestness and neurotic nerdiness remains intact, and his comic delivery is still top-notch. Same goes for Seann William Scott. Yes, the guy gets a bad rap sometimes, but he's totally in his element as the series' breakout character, Stiffler. Scott pours everything he has into the Stiffmeister, and just sells every gag. every reaction shot, and every melodramatic pump-up speech like a champ. Allyson Hannigan is, as always, another MVP. She doesn't have a ton of screentime in this one, but she makes the most of every scene she's in. And her natural geeky good nature makes her character's proclivity for bedroom deviance that much more hilarious.

But can I talk for a minute about the great Eugene Levy? The man is clearly a trooper, having appeared in every Pie film to date - even the straight-to-video ones. And yet, he's a friggin' comic genius. Seriously - go watch A Mighty Wind if you need proof. But honestly, by far the biggest belly laughs in American Reunion come from Levy as "Jim's Dad." His outrageously earnest pep talks to his son are as hilarious as ever, and Levy's utterly deadpan delivery is what sells it. Reunion even cleverly reverses the usual roles, and has Jim very amusingly give some romantic advice to his Dad - creating an online dating profile for him, in a sequence that had me cracking up. But Levy - and his fellow improv genius Jennifer Coolidge, as Stiffler's Mom - almost single-handedly elevate American Reunion with their natural hilarity.

On the other end of the spectrum, you've got the actors who were once hot teen stars, and whose careers have (perhaps justifiably) faded over time. Chris Klein, Mena Suvari, and Tara Reid are all pretty limited, and bring things down with a bevvy of blank expressions, ill-timed dialogue, and just a general lack of comic timing. All three look a good deal older than their characters are supposed to be, and Suvari and Reid both look worse for wear. Thomas Ian Nicholas and Eddie Kaye Thomas are both decent, but not scene-stealers.

I talk about the individual actors because, while the scripting for each character's arc is a mixed bag, it's the actors who really make or break these storylines. We get behind Jim's Dad's quest to get back in the dating game because Levy is so good. And we root for Stiffler to tell off his obnoxious boss (well played by CHUCK's Vic Sahay), because Scott is really good. But do we care much about Klein's Oz and Suvari's Heather ditching their respective ill-fitting significant others and reuniting? Not so much.

To that end, some of the writing and acting around the film's more soap-opera-ish aspects can be a bit painful. And some just seems like filler (a tease that Kevin might cheat on his wife with Reid's Vicky is blah). But where the movie works best is when it's putting its characters in outrageous situations. Like Jim having to fend off the drunken advances of the horny teen girl he used to babysit for. Or Jim's Dad getting wasted at Stiffler's unusually sedate house party. Or the random reunion of the original film's fondly-remembered "MILF" guys. That said, the movie crams a ton of characters and subplots into its long-ish running time, and at times feels a bit overstuffed, and very hit-or-miss.

So yeah, this is not a great film per se, but it surprised me with just how funny and fun it could be when things got rolling. Even though parts made me roll my eyes, I will admit that American Reunion honestly gave me some of the single biggest laughs I've had at a movie all year (thank you Eugene Levy for your mind-blowing explanation of why Jewish parents are so eager to send their kids to Hebrew School). It felt like a fitting finale for this long-running series.

My Grade: B

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