In these strange times, a movie like American Pie has a reassuring message: There are still teenage boys trying to get into teenage girls’ pants, and there are still teenage girls trying to keep teenage boys out of said pants. T’was ever thus, and ever thus will be. Part of growing up, unfortunately, is forgetting what it’s like to be a mass of churning hormones; getting older, we get pious and judgmental about horny teens. Somehow, each generation, once they pass age 25 or so, thinks they were better, smarter teenagers than the current generation of teenagers. T’was ever thus, yada yada. So get ready for the offended reactions to American Pie, which does not pretend that teenagers do not have libidos or drink or look at dirty pictures. They do. We did, too. T’was ever etc. etc.
American Pie isn’t anything great or original; it has been constructed to be to the ’90s what Animal House was to the ’70s and Porky’s was to the ’80s. But it has likable characters and infectiously funny situations, and that’s about all a comedy like this needs. The movie, written by rookie scenarist Adam Herz and directed by newcomer Paul Weitz (his brother Chris Weitz produced), makes scrappy comedy out of what feels like a tragedy at the time: the teenage male’s urgent need, and overwhelming inability, to lose his virginity. Is it gross? Occasionally, but no more so than the PG-13-rated Austin Powers 2. In fact, American Pie was threatened with an NC-17; it must be that unwittingly drinking shit is okay, but unwittingly drinking semen is verboten.
The plot follows four high-school seniors — Jim (Jason Biggs), Oz (Chris Klein), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) — as they make a pact to get laid before they graduate. They set their calendars to prom night, which comes in a mere three weeks. The klutzy but endearing Jim can’t say two words to a girl without disaster; his mellow and helpful dad (Eugene Levy in a great performance that gets big laughs while still allowing the father to retain his dignity) sits him down for frequent serious talks about sex, using visual aids involving magazines with names like Shaved. Kevin, an insecure but basically good-hearted kid, gets the jitters when his girlfriend Vicky (Tara Reid) is too quick to say those terrifying three words and expects him to return them; he eventually seeks outside assistance in giving Vicky “the big O,” in lieu of saying he loves her, I guess. Oz, a lacrosse jock, discovers a good way to get some action: join the choir and hook up with comely singer Heather (Mena Suvari). Finch, a sad-eyed non-entity, figures out a way to create a stud mystique about himself even though he still feels compelled to run home from school to take a dump (don’t ask).
Everything leads to a party, as teen movies often do, and since this is a mainstream comedy, it isn’t spoiling anything to say that the four guys pretty much achieve their goals — though how exactly they achieve them, and whom with, is part of the fun of the movie. American Pie is raunchy but essentially decent at heart. The four heroes aren’t predators, just desperate kids caught in the teen obsession with fitting in. Past a certain point, they can’t even remember why they ever wanted to have sex in the first place. And the movie doesn’t ignore the girls, either. Two of the best characters are sort of outside observers: Jessica (Natasha Lyonne, looking more than ever like Elisabeth Shue’s kid sister), who’s seen it all and gives no-nonsense advice to boys and girls alike; and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), whose endless prattle about her G-rated adventures at band camp sets us up for one of the movie’s biggest belly-laughs. (It’s a shame the TV ads somewhat spoil it.) As for the less admirable horndogs — the insensitive jock Stifler (Seann William Scott), the boastful Sherman (Chris Owen) — the film’s worst humiliations are reserved for them.
The star, if there is one here, is Jason Biggs, whose Jim gets acquainted with the eponymous pastry (an already legendary scene) and has his exertions with a knockout foreign-exchange student broadcast over the Internet to half the kids in school. Jim is the vulnerable, yearning guy you always see in these movies: desperate and resourceful enough to allow male viewers to identify with him, lovably klutzy and harmless enough to allow women to enjoy his misadventures as well. American Pie may have the unbeatable combo of word-of-mouth outrageousness and redeeming heart; it also happens to be a genuinely good and enjoyable film, which shouldn’t be taken for granted.