Saturday, April 7, 2012

Lukewarm Leftover Pie: AMERICAN REUNION

Isn’t it funny how the march of time turns even a slight teen sex comedy into a little cultural time capsule? In 1999, Paul and Chris Weitz’s American Pie was just a small movie that became an R-rated box office success, a movie of raunchiness tempered with just enough sweetness to make its gross-out gags go down. But now it’s 2012, and that late-90s debauchery has begun to feel just the slightest bit quaint. It’s no less vulgar, but somehow the period-specificity of it all – it’s definitely a dated movie – gives it the hazy distancing effect of the recent past. That’s why the simple fact of American Reunion gathering the entire original cast gains poignancy from its strong hit of 90s nostalgia and the inescapable aging of all involved, the audience included.

The conceit of Reunion is that the class of ’99 has yet to throw a class reunion and decides to rectify the oversight with a big bash. So, it’s the 13th-year reunion and the whole gang is back in town. The years since the first film, since the first two theatrical sequels and a number of barely-connected direct-to-DVD sequels, have left the characters older, but in many cases no wiser. The seemingly endless opening moments of the film painstakingly reintroduce them all and, though it’s nice to see some of these guys again, they aren’t exactly the Muppets in The Muppets. There’s so much stage setting as they’re getting ready to party like it’s 1999, the movie seems to be spinning its wheels.

We see Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) are having a bit of a dry spell in the intimacy department after the birth of their son. Oz (Chris Klein) is now a sportscaster who was recently voted off of a Dancing with the Stars knockoff. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) seems to be happily married, Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) has been globetrotting, and Stifler (Seann William Scott) is just as crude, stupid, and aimless as ever. That’s not all. Vicky (Tara Reid), Heather (Mena Suvari), and Jessica (Natasha Lyonne) are all back as well. And, wouldn’t you know it, Jim’s dad (Eugene Levy, the long-suffering consistent cast member for the series) is a widower looking to date again. And Stifler’s mom (Jennifer Coolidge) sits in her upstairs hideaway, just as ever the embodiment of the first movie’s signature contribution to early-2000’s slang.

Now, if those names mean nothing, or next to nothing, to you, I doubt there’s a chance the movie will work in any way shape or form. If, on the other hand, you have any kind of affection for the series (mine only extends to parts of the first, but the others’ have their proponents as well, I suppose), it’ll in all likelihood be a predictable, but not entirely unpleasant, nostalgia trip. It’s just a shame the movie couldn’t be any better. It ends up in a satisfying place. The reunion itself is just the right touch of vulgarity and syrupiness and the characters end their feature-length encore with a pleasant enough curtain call. But there’s so much left unexplored and the way there is so juvenile, that in many ways the whole thing just seems tired.

There are all kinds of humiliations and misunderstandings leading up to the reunion that would be less of a stretch in a teen comedy. Here, in a movie about adults, this rampant immaturity is less excusable. Actually, there’s no excuse a movie about grown people should be this squeamish about sex, using the very idea of adult relationships as a gag in many scenes. In American Pie, this made sense. The characters were inexperienced, virginal teens obsessing about something that, for the most part, they could only imagine. But now, these characters are married or otherwise attached. They’re not teenagers. They’re in their thirties. To have them sneak into upstairs bedrooms, pull scatological pranks, and react to perfectly reasonable adult desires and urges with something approaching unfathomable panic and squirminess mixed with unseemly leering, is simply pushing past the realm of believability and likability.

To make this sequel all the more uneven, American Reunion flirts with the idea of becoming interested in exploring aging in a more meaningful way. There could be a good movie to make out of these characters – this generation – struggling to find their way in the world as adults, while trying to reconcile who they were as younger party people. The movie’s written and directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who last wrote a much better raunchy R-rated comedy about this very subject matter, the surprising A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, better than you’d think. But the Pie kids aren’t as lucky as Harold and Kumar. This movie nods towards a generation gap with the character of a hot 18-year-old girl-next-door (Ali Cobrin) only to literally turn her into a prop for a painfully belabored and largely unfunny sequence involving underage drinking and trespassing.

Hurwitz and Schlossberg shove in just-like-old-times embarrassment and raunch without aging the thematic concerns or even the gags to fit its older characters. This is a sloppily-executed franchise comedy with a few big laughs, a couple of fun cameos and a handful of nice callbacks to previous entries scattered amongst the dry patches of strained gags and sometimes-ugly undertones. I just wish it could have found an approach to its now-adult characters that respected the fact that they might now know just a little bit more about relationships (and anatomy) than when they were in high school. It’s a movie that trades off of its recognizability to a fault, weirdly unconcerned about making itself relevant or necessary.

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