American Pie (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With American Pie, it's a case of the reality of the situation being dwarfed by the hype. Word of mouth has this pegged this as the most raunchy movie of the summer - a film that embraces taboos and pushes the limits of the MPAA's R rating (indeed, before three rounds of cuts, it was given an NC-17). However, while the movie is rude, crude, and lewd, it doesn't break any new ground. Its least palatable moment (involving a beer-and-bodily fluid cocktail) is no worse than a similar instance from the PG-13 Austin Powers sequel. Its most outlandish scenes do not surpass envelope-stretching sequences from 1998's There's Something About Mary and Happiness. In fact, when it comes to being offensive, it has to take second place to another currently-playing theatrical release. No one will debate that American Pie has an edge, but it's not as sharp as that of South Park.

The point of every gross, eccentric, and vulgar moment in American Pie is to make the audience laugh. First time director Paul Weitz and writer Adam Herz aren't going for anything remotely intellectual here - they're appealing to the least common denominator in us all. And it works. American Pie is consistently funny and sporadically hilarious. It should come as a surprise to no one that the most effective jokes involve some form of sex (including, but not limited to, intercourse, masturbation, fellatio, and cunnilingus). There's also one instance of (literal) toilet humor that had the audience in stitches. American Pie descends into bad taste with its first scene and has the good sense never to rise above that level.

A comparison to There's Something About Mary is especially apt. Not only do the two movies offer similar flavors of comedy, but, like Mary, American Pie has an unexpectedly sweet, romantic backstory. The movie isn't all about shocks and gross-out humor; it takes the time to develop a few characters who, while admittedly not the most three-dimensional individuals to grace the screen, are likable and worth caring about. That aspect of this film is being missed by those who are calling it the "Porky's of the '90s." The only significant traits shared by American Pie and Porky's are that they're both members of the teen sex comedy genre and neither will be endorsed by conservative movie-goers. For, while Porky's was an exploitation flick loaded with gratuitous sex and nudity that served no purpose whatsoever, American Pie is an exploitation flick loaded with gratuitous sex and nudity that serves a specific purpose: keeping viewers rolling in the aisles.

American Pie introduces us to a quartet of males with a serious problem: their high school senior year is coming to a close and they're all virgins. Jim (Jason Biggs), the film's ostensible hero, is an awkward guy who has trouble talking to females. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), the most average member of the group, is involved in a stable relationship with a beautiful girl, but he keeps stranding runners at third base. Oz (Chris Klein), a dumb jock, decides that the best way to meet members of the opposite sex is to join the glee club. And Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), the intellectual, is so tightly wound that he won't use the school restrooms. The egos of these four are badly bruised when evidence suggests that the biggest geek at East Great Falls High has had sex before them. So they make a pact to help each other lose their virginity before they graduate, and target one specific event: the Senior Prom.

Each of the guys is ultimately paired with a girl. For Jim, it's an oversexed exchange student named Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth), and, when that falls through, it's Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), a timid member of the school band. Oz falls for smart, pretty Heather (Mena Suvari), who generally has little time for jocks. Kevin's steady girlfriend is Vicky (Tara Reid), whose best friend, Jessica (Natasha Lyonne), encourages her to "do it." And Finch learns why The Graduate is such a popular movie.

Without going into many details, it's worth mentioning a few of the comic highlights. Some of the best scenes in American Pie involve the father-son chats between Jim and his dad (Eugene Levy, in peak form). Levy's deadpan, matter-of-fact approach plays perfectly as his character relates the facts of life to his acutely embarrassed son. Dad doesn't just explain the birds and the bees; he brings along a few visual aids (including a copy of Hustler and a magazine called Shaved). And, when it appears that Jim may finally be getting close to scoring, Dad is all thumbs-up and encouragement.

Another high point involves a '90s variation of looking through the peephole. When Jim learns that an attractive girl may end up changing clothes in his bedroom, he sets up a digital camera to capture the action and broadcast it to an Internet site that only he and a few friends will know about. Of course, nothing goes as planned, and hilarity ensues. While few in the audience will recognize it, crisp editing plays a large part in building comic momentum during this sequence.

Finally, there's the post-prom party where everyone gets (or tries to get) what they want. While American Pie doesn't go for unbridled laughter during these scenes (two comic tete-a-tetes are intercut with two romantic ones), some of the material is exceptionally funny, even if it is a little predictable. Of course, to dilute any potentially serious subtext, Weitz throws in a significant dose of outrageousness as the movie soars to its climax.

For the cast, Weitz has snagged a group of largely unknown actors. A few of them tickle the memory with that "I think I've seen him/her somewhere before," but, aside from Natasha Lyonne (The Slums of Beverly Hills) and Eugene Levy, there aren't any prominent names. And, while no one in American Pie appears poised on the brink of superstardom, everyone fills their roles adequately. Jason Biggs makes Jim an affable, sympathetic figure, Chris Klein (Matthew Broderick's candidate in Election) conveys Oz' sensitive side, and Tara Reid (Urban Legend) exhibits some low wattage sex appeal.

The main difference between American Pie and most of the other teen-themed comedies flooding theaters these days is the take-no-prisoners edge. This film isn't going for "cute." It's not trying to earn a PG-13 for maximum exposure to the under-17 crowd. It takes risks; they don't always work, but, when they do, there's a payoff. And, aside from Election (and perhaps the inept Cruel Intentions), no recent movie set in a high school has been this frank about sex. There's nothing obtuse about the film's appeal. For those who think the moral level of Hollywood pictures is in a steep decline, American Pie provides evidence to support the theory. For just about everyone else, it's a guilty (or, in some cases, a not-so-guilty) pleasure.

American Pie (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 1999-07-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1