Sunday, July 22, 2012

American Reunion

Directors: Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg
Starring: Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein, Thomas Ian Nicholas,Seann William Scott, Tara Reid, Mena Suvari, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Eugene Levy, Jennifer Coolidge, John Cho, Dania Ramirez, Katrina Bowden, Ali Cobrin, Jay Harrington
Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: Unrated

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The fourth and likely final installment of the American Pie franchise, American Reunion, is the first film in the series that works better as a movie than a comedy. Or rather, it works better as a coming-of-age drama. No, scratch that. It's kind of a bittersweet tragedy. Which brings up an interesting question: Do you punish a film for being something entirely different than it was advertised as? Even if it's more? Count me among the few looking forward to seeing a fourth film with the reunited entire original cast . Being the same age as the characters and essentially growing up with the series, I figured it could be exciting seeing them reprise their roles almost a decade later. At worst, it could at least be good for a rush of nostalgia. And now after watching it I still think it was a great idea, just not at all in the way I expected. The thing is that the kind of humor that's hilarious when you're a teenager or college student often rings hollow when you're an adult, even a relatively young one. So seeing these characters at this age awkwardly engaging in it creates a wildly different tone. In other words, it's sometimes kind of sad. But the big surprise is that the filmmakers know it, resulting in a picture that's oddly moving, while still fitting firmly within the franchise's wheelhouse. More of a dramatic re-imagining than a sequel, this installment bares little, but just enough resemblance to the previous films to hold up really well on its own.

The East Great Falls High School Class of 1999 is having a reunion and the gang is back together, now as adults in their early thirties. Pie-humping Jim (Jason Biggs) is still married to former band camper Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), but now as parents with adult responsibilities their sex life is  non-existent, as we discover in a hilarious opening sequence typical for the series. Kevin Myers (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is an architect whipped (figuratively) by his wife into cooking and watching The Bachelorette. Steve Stifler (Seann William Scott) is as immature as ever, floundering at a temp agency while sexually harassing and insulting co-workers. Oz (Chris Klein) is an L.A.-based sportscaster and minor celebrity with a supermodel girlfriend (Katrina Bowden), but still pines for high school sweetheart Heather (Mena Suvari). Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) arrives back in town on his motorcycle, supposedly reinvented as a sophisticated world traveler, catching the eye of Michelle's old friend Selena (Dania Ramirez). None of these characters are as they were when we last saw them or they saw each other, and their expectations of how this reunion will play out differs greatly from what actually happens, even if some things seem to always to stay the same.

This is the first film in the series not written by Adam Herz, but instead Harold and Kumar writer/directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. And it really shows. Not in a bad way, but it just has an entirely different feel to it. It even looks different. As supposedly big fans of the franchise who wanted a crack at this, no one can claim they don't know these characters inside and out. It almost plays like a piece of fan fiction, speculating what would happen if the gang returned home and came to the sudden realization everything's different and they're getting older. Even the bond that's always been the heart of the series undergoes a change as Jim's dad (Eugene Levy) adjusts to life as a widower and must now rely on his son for advice and support after years of being the one giving it (often with overly graphic descriptions). Much of the humor this time around comes from a place similar to that, mixing gross-out gags and call-backs to the previous films with real emotional pathos that feels earned because there's a history to draw upon with the characters. It's less the teen sex romp stuff we're used to and more the "Yeah, that's what it's like" recognition that comes from reaching adulthood and suddenly seeing those times through the rear view mirror.

I'm probably making this sound deeper than the filmmakers intended but take the uncomfortable, bordering on creepy, sub-plot involving Jim and his barely legal neighbor Kara (Ali Cobrin),whom he used to babysit, but now is infatuated with him. In what qualifies as the movie's major set piece as much as Jim's web cam tryst with Nadia did in the original, the image of him trying to sneak a drunk, topless Kara back into her bedroom as Finch, Oz and Stifler entertainingly distract her parents downstairs is funny precisely because the filmmakers seem aware of how creepy it is. Here's Jim, now a husband and a father, carrying this naked teen girl (who's about the same age he was in the original) and hiding out in her bedroom.  Having always played the most neurotic and self-conscious of the group, Biggs know just the right way to approach it, making Jim seem as horrified as we are. Our shared history with these already established characters help bizarre situations that might fall flat in another comedy work. They also have enough guts to make Stifler pathetic and crazed, as his actions in this one come closer to what you would expect from a mental institution escapee than a fully functioning adult. He's a sad, angry loser and the script at least has enough guts to present him that way and have every character openly acknowledge it. Pranks that may have been funny in his day would land any adult in jail I appreciated there was no attempt made to have him miraculously experience a life change or mature as a result of the films' events. His best scenes involve the gang's encounters with current high schoolers and his failure to realize what made the "Stifmeister" cool then only qualifies him as a total tool now.

Surprisingly, the movie belongs to Chris Klein and Mena Suvari, with the former giving his most relaxed, lived-in performance yet as Oz. Playing him in a state of depression as if he were some repulsed, distant observer of his shallow life, Klein gives this brilliantly subversive take on a D-list star who once embarrassingly appeared on "Celebrity Dance-Off." It seems to exist in this odd meta realm located somewhere between Neil Patrick Harris (who actually cameos) and James Van Der Beek on the self-parody scale. Oz's reunion with Heather proves to be the movie's most successful element as the writers give the sub-plot just enough breathing room for you to really want to see them back together, not only because the story dictates they should, but because it actually feels earned due to their chemistry. Suvari shines, proving she's still got it, and Klein has a crucial scene late that he plays perfectly, alternating between humiliation and sadness in what should be (and still strangely is) the movie's comedic high point. That both actors seem to reignite in themselves the spark and promise they first displayed when bursting onto the scene in the 90's only make their performances resonate that much more.

The relationship between Thomas Ian Nicholas' Kevin and Tara Reid's Vicky is also given appropriate closure of a different kind, but worth pointing out for Reid's semi-successful, train-wreck free return.  Pie's most well-known alumnus, Alyson Hannigan is kind of brushed aside in a thankless wife role, as Michelle seems withdrawn and lacking the buoyant personality we'd normally associate with the character. Then again, the point of the movie is that these people are no longer what they were and Jim's marriage is becoming a bore, so to that end, the point's taken. Of course, couldn't be an American Pie movie without Jennifer Coolidge returning as Stifler's mom, this time hooking up with Jim's dad in a development that oddly makes some degree of sense and gives two comic treasures and opportunity to strut their stuff. There's also very brief appearances from Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth), "MILF guy" (John Cho), and Jessica (Natasha Lyonne). Some of these seem crammed in as an afterthought but given the sheer number of franchise cast members and need to focus on the core group, it's hard to be upset that lesser supporting players were relegated to cameos.

The filmmakers deserve credit for recognizing a new American Pie movie warrants a different approach and having the guts to not just simply deliver another helping of the same recipe. The characters are older now and thankfully the script reflects that progression and the feelings accompanying it.  There are some laughs, but the laughs aren't the same ones we got in the previous three films. They're more uncomfortable and cringe-worthy, likelier to hit a nerve with early-thirties viewers than than high school demographic the series was originally aimed at. But that's really how it should be at this point considering where the characters are in their lives.  Comedy and drama too often mix unevenly, but American Reunion seems to strike a nice balance in tone that's been escaping most mainstream comedies centered around adults not wanting to grow up. Here, for once, are characters who actually have. Getting them all back together to do this again every five or ten years might not be such a bad idea.               


Ben K said...

I felt let down by this one. It definitely had its funny moments, but the story seemed to be all over the place. All the same, excellent review.

jeremythecritic said...

It was all over the place, but I thought in an endearing way. My only complaint being that I kind of wished it were funnier. Thanks Ben.