Moviegoing in the sweltering summer of 1999 wasn’t just dominated by the likes of senior beard George Lucas and the introduction of his divisive, screen-hogging “Star Wars” prequels. There was another box office force less dependent on Jedis and action figures. Riding a staggering word-of-mouth wave that involved an exhaustive screening campaign on college campuses, “American Pie” rose to power mid-season, swelling into the year’s definitive sleeper smash. The picture launched a multitude of careers, grossed out sold-out showings, and singlehandedly resuscitated the teen hornball genre. “American Pie” was also a motion picture that I couldn’t stand after my initial viewing.
“American Pie” meant the world to its target audience, even accepting some throne time as a generational classic, cinematically defining the dial-up adolescent experience of the late 1990s. While I was comfortably within the intended demographic for proper viewing eleven years ago, the picture still felt awkwardly juvenile, perverting a jovial quest towards good old-fashioned boob squeezin’ into a lunkheaded, wheezy comedy where its most identifiable traits were assigned to its most grotesque sequences. Audiences howled at the antics of Jim (Jason Biggs), Ox (Chris Klein), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) as they clownishly attempted to obliterate their virgin shame, but I found the picture disappointingly random, primitively acted, and insistently unfunny. “American Pie” was just a one-note downer, and that single note was pure inanity.
Drilling further into my developing impatience was the film’s assertion of significance. These characters weren’t simply mean-spirited brutes aching to stick their eager wieners into any vaguely moist hole (be it animal, vegetable, or mineral), they had hearts too, damn it. These goons cared, with the final act of the film packed with unintentional hilarity as screenwriter Adam Herz tried to legitimize what was essentially an extended Benny Hill sketch by pouring on the poignancy, as our heroes finally learned the true meaning of love. After they’ve busted a nut, of course. The wildly inappropriate implementation of heart into a film where a dude drinks a cup of sperm-laden beer struck me at the time as an unforgivably transparent, amateurish move to hot glue value to material that could barely stand up straight without getting dizzy.
Watching “American Pie” dominate pop culture for the remainder of the year was heartbreaking, but it was clear audiences buying into the film were finding a thrilling type of onscreen sexual frankness that was shooed out of Hollywood in the late-1980s. And who really needs thoughtful, patiently metered characterizations when there are diarrhea and premature ejaculation gags to tend to? “American Pie” brought ‘em in by the millions; viewers rabid to observe teen humiliation and frequently disgusting visual jokes.
These days, “American Pie” has morphed into a triumphant brand name, with two official sequels (the infinitely more focused “American Pie 2” and “American Wedding”) and a legion of DTV cash-in product continuing the bawdy legacy of the original picture, along with keeping actor Eugene Levy (eye-bulging it up as Jim’s Dad in every single one of these films) out of debt. It’s hard to discount what “American Pie” has become to the public, necessitating a return trip to the land of pie-humping to see if time has somehow softened my harsh memories of the original film.
Turns out “American Pie” is still as dopey as ever, despite the efforts of a few film critics and earnest youthful bloggers to reposition the film as a definitive teen statement of leg-crossing sexual yearn. At its best, the movie is a bouncy throwaway that holds tight to a variety of broad reaction shots, lending the film a passable animated spirit, while also introducing the world to the naughty acronym M.I.L.F., which has since become a staple of true broheim conversation and a branding godsend to aging porn stars everywhere. For that, I bow to the picture.
The rest of the feature is truly low-budget teen claptrap, appallingly directed by Chris and Paul Weitz, who lend the film a one-dimensional visual polish that makes more than a few sections of the picture resemble a particularly inspired Vivid Video production. The film is stiff and hugely episodic, moving around the “story” chasing fizzled gags instead of digging into a tempting plot, eventually forced to deal with a buffet of needless character intended by Herz to create a community, but it only confuses the directors, who don’t know who or what to focus on between the gross-out money shots.
Certainly, “American Pie” isn’t nearly the taboo-busting monolith of filth it was purported to be back in 1999, with a legion of copycats and sequels hungrily mapping out greater moral and public health depths to explore. The sight of a guy guzzling jizz-beer just doesn’t quite hold the same rafter-quaking response as it once did, which depresses me greatly. Is our jizz-beer innocence gone for good? What do I tell my children when they ask about the jizz-beer?
What’s interesting about the picture today is seeing all these semi-famous faces who took the golden opportunity of a massive summer hit and did…next to nothing while the fame gates were cracked open. Jason Biggs was a trying, limited actor who proceeded to display little discernable range before the industry kicked him over to nothing supporting roles. Chris Klein was a thespian chainsaw massacre who could never act, worming through the industry due to his good looks. Thomas and Nicholas? Where did those guys go? On the female side of the marquee, there’s Alyson Hannigan, who made something of herself sticking to fanboy franchises (while made the face of the marketing in subsequent years, it’s interesting to note that Hannigan’s flute-violating band geek Michelle is barely in the picture), but Tara Reid, Mena Suvari, Shannon Elizabeth, and Natasha Lyonne? It’s hardly the graduating class of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” And I’m oddly thankful for that.
This leaves Seann William Scott as foul-mouthed jester Stiffler, who founded his entire career on this one single role. It’s a loudmouth character he inhabits convincingly, but eleven years of the same smart-ass smirk has visibly worn down the actor -- a tremendous contrast to the fresh-faced, overly gelled fool from 1999.
“American Pie” remains insincere and threadbare, with a ludicrous conclusion meant to pay off an emotional maturity that never manifests itself beyond inconsequential turns of performance. Perhaps there’s a sexual questioning to the film that’s made it an enduring sensation, but the rest of the rancid jokes, listless performances, and mild sauce mischief bury the basic boner novelty of “American Pie” alive. Eleven years later, it’s still the same insufferable, meaningless hooey it always was.