Saturday, 2 June 2012

American Pie (1999)

Dir. Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz
Starring: Jason Biggs, Chris Klein, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Eddie Kaye Thomas 

1999’s American Pie sparked a million gross-out comedies – and a million sequels. Just this year the original cast came back together for American Pie Reunion. This shows the esteem the film is held in by studios and regard felt for the characters by the viewing public. While many of the sequels were truly terrible (straight-to-video awful) the original is still a fun film to watch. 

But you don’t watch it for the plot, which is paper thin and has been done a thousand times. Four high-school friends make a pact that they will lose each lose their virginity by the time they leave school. The delight comes in the characters, all the way from the stars down to the smallest of bit parts. Jason Biggs stars as the hapless sexually-frustrated Jim, cursed with an understanding father. His friends include lacrosse-playing Oz (Chris Klein) who tries to discover his sensitive side by joining what we would now refer to as the glee club, cocky Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) who already has a girlfriend and so should be ahead in the challenge, and idiosyncratic sophisticate Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas). Their aim is to get dates for the prom. After a string of embarrassing failures (including a sock, a web-cam and the “warm apple pie” of the title), Jim accepts an invite from band camp geek Michelle (Alyson Hannigan, formerly of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Oz romances choir-mate Heather (Mena Suvari) in a relationship which is totally devoid of spark. Honestly, I've seen pandas with more sexual charisma. A little better is Kevin’s relationship with Vicky (Tara Reed, before she became a car-crash), where he pressures her to consummate their relationship and she pressures him to say “I love you”. Star of this foursome is the quirky Finch who ends up bedding a MILF (an acronym introduced to the world by this film). 

These leads are padded out by a great ensemble cast. Seann William Scott got his big break playing doofus Stiffler; Shannon Elizabeth had a dodgy accident as clothing-optional ‘Czechoslovakian’ exchange student Nadia, and Chris Owen created the unlikeably smug ‘Sherminator’ (“I’m a sophisticated sex robot, sent back in time to change the future for one lucky lady”). Eugene Levy typecast himself for ever as Jim’s Dad, full of well-intentioned but cringe-making advice (“I did the fair bit of masturbating when I was younger…”), and Jennifer Coolidge shall always be known as the ür-cougar as she channels Mrs Robinson as Stiffler’s Mom (“I got some scotch… Aged eighteen years. The way I like it…”). Even the awful prom band and the assistant lacrosse coach who merely repeats the last word his superior says provide humour. Character after character and scene after scene can now only be described as iconic. Altogether now: “This one time, at band camp…” 

Father son bondage mags

The soundtrack took me straight back to the summer of 1999One Week by Barenaked Ladies, Semi-Charmed Life by Third Eye Blind. I was only three years older than them, preparing to graduate from university when those tunes were in the charts. It certainly helped me to feel closer to them than I would have done from this distance. 

For a ‘gross-out’ comedy, there isn’t that much gross in the film. Okay, Stiffler has a beer with extra head, Jim demolishes an apple pie, and Finch has an explosive poo, but the emphasis is on the characterisation. The characters are, more-or-less, believable. They are sympathetic, and the viewer can empathise with their travails. But it is not so much a romantic comedy as a sex comedy. The pact was never to find love. Some do. When the four friends gather in their local hotdog store Oz claims not to have consummated his relationship with Heather. And Kevin finally tells Vicky that he loves her, only to have her end the relationship because the distance between them once they go to university would be insurmountable. But there is no suggestion that Finch and Stiffler’s Mom have anything romantic between them (even in the throes of passion her refers to her as “Stiffler’s Mom”). And Jim wakes alone to conclude “She used me. Cool.” One has to wait until later films in the series to see his relationship with Michelle blossom into marriage. 

What have I learnt about Michigan?
Not a vast amount. American Pie is one of those high school movies where the setting could be anywhere. The only real nod to its Michigan setting is that Stiffler’s Mom has a lakeside beach-house on the shores of Lake Michigan where the post-prom party is held. 

Other learnings can be inferred. ‘East Great Falls’ is a rather wealthy, upper-middle-class neighbourhood (so totally different from 8 Mile's Detroit. Lacrosse is the sport of choice in school. There are state-wide choir contests. And it has at least two respectable local universities, in Ann Arbor (the University of Michigan) and Lansing (Michigan State). 

Can we go there?
The film is set at the fictional East Great Falls High School. Looking at a map will find you an East Grand Rapids, however. Its high school alumni includes Adam Herz, who wrote the film, supposedly based upon some of his own school experiences. So for East Great Falls, read East Grand Rapids. For East Great Falls High School, read East Grand Rapids High School. And for the boys’ favourite hangout ‘Dog Years’, read East Grand Rapids’ own popular Yesterdog of 1505 Wealthy Street.

American Pie was not filmed in Michigan however; shooting took place in California instead (principally Long Beach). Exterior shots of the school was really Robert A. Millikan High School; interiors were Long Beach Polytechnic High School. The Los Cerritos neighbourhood provided Jim’s house, at no 4153 Cedar Avenue (on near-by Country Club Drive one house was the home of Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and was reused in Not Another Teen Movie; another house on the same street was home to Donnie Darko; a third house was the location of the climactic house party in Weird Science! I really wish I'd grown up on this estate!). The houses of Stiffler and Kevin were on the Pasadena / Arcadia border. The lakeshore beach house is on Lake Sherwood in Westlake Village. ‘Dog Years’ was created at 402 South Myrtle Avenue in Monrovia and is now Caffe’ Opera. They don’t serve hotdogs though. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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