Amid the current cycle of films that exist primarily to exhibit an excruciatingly fetching array of young refugees from popular TV shows, I’ve got to say that it’s kinda nice to see a teen movie that harks back, unashamedly, to the days of sexually frank, borderline-offensive comedies about growing up with a dirty mind.
American Pie is the story of four confused, hormone-ravaged young high school seniors who make a pact that each will lose his virginity by prom night. The idea is to create a sort of support group, where the other three can offer encouragement when someone’s morale runs low. Each boy hatches his own plan for getting a girl into bed — the lacrosse jock joins the school choir to get close to the hot choir babes, for instance. And each plan, in turn, is revealed to be less than foolproof.
I don’t want to overpraise the film. American Pie is an obviously low-budget sex comedy with outrageously sick humor tacked on, apparently, just for the hell of it. The big gags are little self-contained episodes that could be rearranged, or even pulled out of the body of the film entirely without damaging the underlying story. Even the title is a cynical bid for attention based on one of the film’s more vulgar set pieces, which has a high school student getting jiggy with a uniquely American baked good.
Are the jokes funny? Yeah, they’re funny. Here’s the real surprise, though — unlike its nearest cinematic relative, There’s Something About Mary, American Pie is funny consistently, rather than in, er, spurts. And it picks up speed after getting some of the dumb stuff out of the way — I didn’t find the semen-in-the-beer scene any more funny or shocking than the Fat-Bastard’s-floating-turd scene in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, for instance. But when, already having put her own body on display, one of the film’s objects of desire then orders a high school boy to strip for her pleasure, the ridiculous results are worth a giggle.
OK — so the women in this film are still presented as the tantalizing, frustrating Other, from Shannon Elizabeth’s big-breasted, French-accented exchange student to Alyson Hannigan’s maybe-she’ll-do-me band nerd. The most penetrating insight American Pie has where relations between boys and girls are concerned is that boys want gratification and girls want love, l-u-v, which is hardly cutting-edge. But it allows for the existence of sensitive boys, too, and takes pains to turn the tables on its desperate protagonists in some refreshingly funny scenes. I actually find this give-and-take treatment of sexual longing preferable to the single-minded fetishizing of the nearly perfect, underwear-clad girl-next-door-glimpsed-through-the-window endorsed by There’s Something About Mary.
What carries American Pie across the finish line, and what makes the laughs keep coming after the money shots have come and gone, is a sweet, self-deprecating sense of character. The kids seem like four interchangeable schmucks in the opening reels, but by the end of the film I was surprised to find myself actually liking them, identifying with them, and wondering whether they learned anything from their misadventures. And, in the final analysis, I just find it awfully hard not to like a movie that has somebody studying instructions for something called the “Tongue Tornado” in order to please his lover.
Footnote: American Pie‘s raucous sense of humor has generated quite a stir among the sort of viewers who think it’s shameful that such a raunchy film would be aimed at a teenaged audience. It’s true that the jokes that draw attention (the funny ones) are centered around giving pleasure to one’s self, or to one’s partner, and I suppose this is thought to encourage kids to have sex on the brain. But you know what? Based on my own experience in high school, kids who are old enough to have an interest in this film have sex on the brain already. Assuming that’s a constant, I’d say that if impressionable high-schoolers are gonna sneak into R-rated movies, it’s better that they find their way into this one than, say, 8MM, which equates sex, pornography and violent death in a disconcerting way but, remarkably, inspired nowhere near as much tsk-tsk-tsking from the media.