Starting in 1999, when four friends (Jim, Kevin, Finch and Oz) decide to do all they can to lose their virginity by the time they graduate high school, then moving forward a year for a sequel built around them meeting up after a year at college and spending the summer at a lake/beach house, before wrapping up the trilogy with the build-up to and events at Jim’s marriage to Michelle, the American Pie films very much focus on Jim (Jason Biggs)’s sexual misadventures, but with the gross-out elements undercut by an overall sweetness and at the series’ best moments, a welcome and necessary lightness of touch.
Since the franchise kicked off, plenty of other films have entered this sort of arena and with mixed success. After the first three theatrical releases, the franchise drifted into straight-to-DVD / spin-off territory, with terrifyingly bad results. With the gang back for (presumably) one last big screen hurrah with American Reunion, we can push the pretenders, rip-offs, and franchise embarrassments to the margins and revisit the first three entries on their own merits, with the benefits of a pristine HD makeover.
The first film is, by a country mile, the best of the set. The four friends want to lose their virginity before high school ends, but it is nowhere near as crass as it could have been. Jim’s dad, the imperious Eugene Levy, steals the show with his efforts to provide fatherly advice to his son, who flounders with getting caught masturbating, prematurely ejaculating while being broadcast on a webcam, and humping a freshly-baked apple pie. It is utterly awkward stuff, but so guileless is Biggs’ performance that you cannot help but warm to him. The four friends are in some ways typical horny teens, however the camaraderie between them resonates authentically and engagingly. The jokes come off really well, the characters act consistently with themselves and the whole shebang was the great success it deserved to be.
The second film brought everyone back for a reunion of sorts, with one year of college under their belts and a summer working and partying in a beach house on the shores of Lake Michigan ahead of them. Stifler (Seann William Scott) was a key component of the first film, proving to be crude, offensive, shallow, and horny to a degree unmatched by anyone else across the franchise, but in this entry his character is ramped up and it doesn’t entirely work. Yes, he is still crass and unpleasant, but it is taken to such a ridiculous degree as to unbalance the film. Jim is still hapless (gluing his hand to his chap during a masturbatory moment, getting caught in the middle of making love to a girl at college by not just his own parents but hers as well), still pining for Nadia and still fundamentally a thoroughly loveable character. It feels a little shoe-horned getting absolutely everyone back on board (Oz (Chris Klein) is still with Heather (Mena Suvari) but she is studying in Europe and so we get some fairly teeth-clenching scenes of them, erm, trying their hands at telephone sex) and it would have been better to have made do with a few key characters instead of trying to get everyone in the frame.
Without the “get laid before graduation” pact of the first film, this entry lacks a certain amount of narrative drive and plays instead like a more loosely observed series of incidents. That can work just fine, but doesn’t here and although there are plenty of awkward laughs to be had, it feels a bit flat overall.
American Pie: The Wedding fixes some of the problems of the second film, copies others, and makes some new ones along the way as well. It wisely ditches Oz, Heather and Tara Reid’s Vicky entirely, leaving us with a tighter cast and with the arc of planning for and getting to Jim and Michelle’s wedding day, another clear narrative. Alas, Stifler is more extreme again, having sex with Jim’s Nan, after having already upset Michelle’s parents by appearing to spit roast their pet dog with Jim at the engagement party. He also turns out to be a great dancer, teaching Jim to do a decent job of his first dance as well as winning over a fashion designer by taking part in a dance-off at a gay club in Chicago. The dance-off is good fun, but Stifler’s sudden prowess feels like what it is, an irrational plot device. His sudden transformation into a selfless, helpful friend in the third act is likewise nonsensical. Sure, it’s ”nice”, but it entirely goes against the grain of everything we have seen of Stifler across three films. Lazy and silly.
Eugene Levy remains wonderful as perhaps the most loving, discrete, and tender dad to have ever graced our screens. When the film threatens to slip into predictability, or charmless vulgarity, he brings an earthed humour and kindness that reminds us of the high notes of the first film. Jim and Michelle are sweet, but the bachelor party sequence with dominatrices, excessive nudity, and abundant near-misses feels out of kilter with the rest of the film, let alone the rest of the series. It is not too extreme compared to what we have seen before, just a shade too far. Obviously all loose ends are wrapped up with a pretty bow, it’s that sort of film, that sort of franchise. Marginally better than part 2, but well shy of the first instalment.
American Pie (4/5)
American Pie 2 (2/5)
American Wedding (2.5/5)
Extras: Goodness me. Each disc has a trailer/featurette for American Reunion, along with a set of outtakes and deleted scenes. The deleted scenes were all rightly excised, but the outtakes show that everyone not only really enjoyed themselves but they’re actually pretty funny. Director/Writer/Cast commentaries abound across all three discs, but tend towards the repetitive. One problem is that on occasion you have a solitary cast member doing an entire commentary on their own and if that is, say, Eddie Kay Thomas (Finch/S***break), minutes can feel like hours. The first film includes a spotlight on locations, casting tapes, a photo montage, and a rather incongruous Universal Pictures “100 Years of Unforgettable Characters” featurette. The second gives us on-set larking under the title “Good Times With Cast & Crew” as well as a music video. American Wedding really pushes the boat out, offering up introductions to each deleted scenes from series screenwriter Adam Herz, Herz’s guide to writing for Stifler (use lots of swearing, let Scott get on with it), scenes of the wedding re-cut like a “cheesy” wedding video, a day in the life of Thomas Ian Nicholas (“Kevin Cam” – terrible), Nikki’s Hollywood Diary (“insight” into how Nikki Ziering prepared for the red carpet premiere), behind the scenes of the shooting of the bachelor party scene, and a detailed featurette on how the sequence where Jim shaves his private parts before sending the trimmings into the hotel ventilation system was put together. With a surprising amount of care, apparently. A mixed bag in terms of quality, but with this much content there is likely to be something for everyone.