American Pie (1999)

D: Paul Weitz
S: Jason Biggs, Chris Klein, Natasha Lyonne

Funny and surprisingly good natured teenage sex comedy in which the bulk of the humour centres on teenage angst instead of comic porno (though it is not without its scatological humour and bare breasts). A curious hybrid of 80s sex comedies and more recent high school flicks (She's All That, Never Been Kissed, The Faculty, 10 Things I Hate About You), it is most clearly inspired by the now badly dated Porky's but features self-reflexive jibes and references to postmodern feminism which clue the audience in to a more PC version of the hijinks, peephole antics and panty raids of the progeny of Animal House. A group of High School seniors pledge they will lose their virginity before Prom. Their campaigns challenge the limits of their adolescent masculinity, and in fact they learn more about themselves than they expected.

At one point near the end, American Pie seems like it's about to genuinely subvert its generic forebears. The male characters sit mournfully outside the dance hall and ponder if virginity is not such a bad thing after all. The only one who is guaranteed to score has begun to doubt himself and the others have all seemingly missed their chance. The four conclude that maybe what's important is that they have good memories of their time in school, and perhaps such memories need not include sexual conquest. It's a surreal moment, and makes you wonder if we've wandered into Pleasantville before Reese Witherspoon got loose in it. The final act turns things around though, and it concludes with some male bonding over fries and milkshakes (pale echoes of Diner perhaps?) where they contemplate life, now confident of their manhood in the wake of an eventful night of consummation.

There are other moments in American Pie which hilariously turn the tables on the genre, especially those involving Eugene Levy as a concerned father trying desperately to explain sex in as frank a manner as he can as he encounters his son (Jason Biggs) in a variety of compromising situations involving tube socks, condoms, and (soon to be famously) baked goods. Most of the flesh on display is male, and the humiliation and objectification is largely directed at the boys rather than the girls, with only one female at the receiving end of old-fashioned voyeuristic antics (with a contemporary technological twist). Even the dynamics of the high school hierarchy are subtly shifted: the geek is part of the group (even if he is eventually on the receiving end of the funniest laxative scene since Dumb & Dumber, if you found that funny in the first place, of course); a jock becomes genuinely sensitive; the 'villainous' jock is sweetly entertaining; both of them play Lacrosse instead of the usual football; the school authorities don't figure at all; and the general attitude toward sex is less circumspect and tittersome than it often is in such films. It's not the most original script in the world, but writer Adam Hertz has come up with enough wrinkles on the old formula to make it not only work, but gently send itself up in a way which corresponds with its attitude to adolescent masculine sexuality.

The film is topped off with an appealing young cast. High-billed Natasha Lyonne (Slums of Beverly Hills) actually has quite a small though memorable part as the all-knowing confidant to troubled Tara Reid, whose wish for the perfect moment has boyfriend Thomas Ian Nicholas on edge until he is bequeathed a bible of sexual technique. Biggs is likable as the centre of attention, and ends up with an hilarious prom date in Alyson Hannigan. Eddie Kaye Thomas does a nice job with the stereotypical nerd which finishes with an irresistible series of gags at the expense of The Graduate. Mena Suvari and Chris Klein make a believable (if wet) couple and though Shannon Elizabeth ends up with the least dignity of all the females in the film, she does have at least one funny moment at her tormentor's expense. Sean W. Scott has fun as the diehard jock character, and though he's at the receiving end of a surprising amount of the gags, he's pretty much as enjoyable to watch as the others.

American Pie is a good laugh, which is a strong recommendation in the wake of Big Daddy. It is weighted in favour of belly laughs rather than the cerebral humour of the likes of Analyze This or Rushmore, but there's no harm in having a choice, and at least American Pie has the virtue of being quite genuine and often just as genuinely funny. Not to all tastes, mind, but worth a look for the attuned.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.