EMPIRE ESSAY: American Pie Review

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Four teenage boys enter a pact to lose their virginity by prom night.


It was odd that Hollywood had ever forgotten the goldmine that was the teen movie. The equation was not exactly high calculus. Inexpensive, unknown good looking cast + script with plenty of sex and skin + pretty undiscriminating audience = boffo box office. This Ancient Knowledge was rediscovered by Kevin Williamson with his screenplay for Scream in 1996 and the positive tsunami of shekels that headed the studio's way after Wes Craven's film ensured that execs across Hollywood began to greenlight anything that looked like its voice might break any minute. As the teen horror bandwagon got up to speed with the likes of Urban Legend and I Know What You Did Last Summer, its less bloodstained twin, the teen sex comedy, was dutifully exhumed. Mostly, the results were as tatty and desperate as the 80s flesh fests that had inspired them. But there were some exceptions.

With American Pie, writer Adam Herz and director brothers Chris and Paul Weitz inventively stitched together the sensitive angsty elements of the John Hughes flick and the gross-out, animal comedy of the likes of Animal House and Porky's. The hybrid resulted, surprisingly enough, in the teen comedy sensation of 1999.

All the standard teen stereotypes are present and correct, but each with a millennial twist. Oz (Keanu-alike Chris Klein, to be seen later this year in John McTiernan's Rollerball) is the high-school jock — though oddly playing Lacrosse, more usually associated with 1950s girls' schools than high school hunks — but with a gentler, jazz-singing side; Stifler (Seann William Scott) is the irritating chauvinist but one whom the script constantly punishes, whether it's by having him inadvertently quaffing semen (the second instance of the late 90s vogue for sperm jokes, There's Something About Mary having cum first) or inflicting the sight of his mother being banged on the billiard table. Jim (Biggs) is instantly loveable as a well-meaning, guileless Pee Wee character (the Porky's references being so blatant as to feature a shrouded hard-on in its opening sequence) who will finally be rewarded for 90-odd minutes of embarrassment, including the infamous baked goods probing sequence (shot more explicitly but toned down for release) with a functional shag in the final reel. While sports coat wearing wannabe bon viveur Finch (Thomas) is a kind of modified geek with cooler elements.

American Pie was the first American teen comedy to gleefully throw off the wet blanket that had been the AIDS panic of the mid 80s to late 90s and place youthful rutting firmly (but "sensitively") back at the heart of the teen comedy. Movies aimed at an adolescent audience during this period had avoided the mattress mambo, with the likes of Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure and Wayne's World concentrating on surf dude slackerdom or pastiche rather than the endless quest for pubescent punani. While sex was often referenced in those movies, it was very rarely actually enacted. And semen-quaffing gags were unthinkable in a decade where, it was popularly thought, such behaviour might be fatal. By 1999, for good or ill, HIV was no longer perceived as the immediate threat it had previously been and — though the inevitable very visible presence of condoms has a mildly irritating, though understandable, public service message feel — sex was back on the movie menu.

Like Porky's before it, Herz's screenplay is essentially a series of dramatically embarrassing moments stitched together. Jim is compelled to perform a clumsy strip in front of hot totty Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) as well as the rest of the school; Oz gets caught boasting about his potential conquest; coprophobe Finch is afflicted by a biblical case of the squits and there's of course the centrepiece dessert-poking sequence. The message would appear to be that, for boys at least, sex is a minefield of potential disasters of which girls are very much in control. It's something of a departure from the free-for-all of sex comedies in the 80s, but Herz and the Weitzs' recognised that, as usual, adolescents are in fact much more conservative than the average movie exec, gives them credit for.

Critics over 30 found American Pie's stratospheric success utterly mystifying. It obviously wasn't much of a surprise for Herz, whose title for the movie while it was doing the studio rounds was Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made For Under $10 Million That Most Readers Will Probably Hate But I Think You Will Love. He turned out to be right on the money.

A perfect merger of comedy and muck.