American Reunion: School’s Out Forever

by Ethan Alter April 6, 2012 6:01 am
<I>American Reunion</i>: School’s Out Forever

It might have been easier to feel more enthusiastic about American Reunion if this was the first time we had seen Jim, Stifler and the rest of the American Pie crew since the first movie became a breakout hit back in 1999. Thirteen years on, the original holds up quite nicely; dated soundtrack aside (the fact that both "One Week" and "Flagpole Sitta" are blasted without any hint of irony clearly makes it a late '90s period piece), the jokes still land, the characters remain endearing and there's a genuine sweetness beneath the raunch that gives the film heart as well as humor. A sequel to that movie would be most welcome, in the same way that Richard Linklater took his time following up Before Sunrise with Before Sunset. Unfortunately, in between American Pie and American Reunion, the brand name was tarnished by two mostly terrible sequels (2003's American Wedding was particularly dire) and a line of flat-out awful direct-to-DVD spin-offs (which, to be fair, didn't feature any of the original cast, with the exception of Eugene Levy). As a result Reunion arrives in theaters appearing less like a triumphant homecoming than the last gasp of a flatlining franchise.

In this case, appearances aren't deceiving. And that's a shame because there are flashes of inspiration in American Reunion that indicate that a better, funnier movie might have been possible. For the most part, though, the film is content to remain in the same rut -- easy callbacks, casually cruel misogyny and wildly implausible behavior that would constitute a criminal offense in most states -- that defined the sequels, with the added weight of the actors now all being much too old for this shit. Their characters at least acknowledge the latter fact from time to time and, not coincidentally, those are the scenes in the film that are the most honest and resonant. On the other hand, that self-awareness doesn't make one of the worst subplots -- which involves an 18-year-old girl repeatedly throwing herself at the now 30-year-old Jim -- any less creepy.

As the title implies, American Reunion finds the East Great Falls High Class of 1999 getting back together to celebrate their... um 13-year reunion (an odd situation that's explained away with a tossed-off bit of dialogue about the class not getting it together in time to host the usual ten-year soiree). So how exactly has everyone changed the intervening years? Here are then-and-now portraits for both the characters and the franchise itself:

Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan)
Then: He was a painfully awkward -- and painfully horny -- teenage guy who became (in)famous for not just one, but two pre-ejaculations, which were captured and broadcast live via web cam. She was a painfully awkward -- and very experienced -- band camp enthusiast that took his virginity on Prom Night.
Now: Married with child, Jim and Michelle find that all their new adult responsibilities are putting a serious crimp in their previously Herculean sex life. Although they vow to use Reunion Weekend as a time to reignite the flames of passion, Jim's penchant for getting trapped in humiliating situations keeps them apart. In the franchise's early days, Biggs's clumsy enthusiasm (and willingness to debase himself onscreen) made Jim an appealing hero. As time has passed, though, both he and the character have gone from being a charming naïf to a clueless dolt. And compared to the very real chemistry that Hannigan shares with her other on-screen husband, Jason Segel, there's next to no spark between Michelle and Jim. It doesn't help that, 13 years later, the writers still can't come up with any other funny jokes for Michelle beyond those that begin with the phrase, "This one time, at band camp..."

Oz (Chris Klein) and Heather (Mena Suvari)
Then: Back in high school, Oz was your typical Big Man on Campus jock type who nevertheless had a sensitive side just aching to come out. And the quiet, studious Heather proved to be the girl capable of drawing that side out of him.
Now: Having split up towards the end of their respective collegiate careers, Oz is now a professional sportscaster with a hot model girlfriend (30 Rock's Katrina Bowden), who convinced him to expand his fan base by competing on a Dancing With the Stars-style reality show (he wound up losing to Gilbert Gottfried). Heather, meanwhile, went to medical school and is currently dating a douchey surgeon (Jay Harrington), who naturally pretends he's not a douche whenever she's around. One thing definitely hasn't changed since the first movie: Chris Klein is still the world's worst actor.

Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) and Vicky (Tara Reid)
Then: I had forgotten this, but committed couple Kevin and Vicky were practically the stars of the original movie, as it was their shared desire to round third base and head on home that set the nominal plot in motion. While Kevin sought advice from his older brother (Casey Affleck -- who does not return for the reunion), Vicky turned to her pal Jessica (Natasha Lyonne, who does return for one ultra-brief scene) and eventually they did the deed on Prom Night as intended... and then broke up the next morning.
Now: Kevin is a married househusband and just as boring as ever, while Vicky... is just kinda there. Her actual post-high school life isn't described in great detail, most likely to keep Reid's screentime as limited as possible. Here's a fun way to spend their scenes together: watch how rarely Reid shares the frame with her co-star. Instead, she's almost always photographed solo, staring just slightly off to the side of the camera where her lines are probably printed in big block letters on a series of cue cards.

Stifler (Seann William Scott) and Finch (Eddie Kay Thomas)
Then: Every high school needs a class clown and that's the role Stifler fulfilled: a giggly, potentially psychotic class clown who greatly enjoys messing with his supposed pals. Finch, on the other hand, was part of the Core Four alongside Jim, Oz and Kevin, as the group's resident eccentric. And, of course, he famously enraged Stifler by sleeping with the guy's mom.
Now: Finch has left small-town Michigan behind to pursue a career as an international jet-setter, while Stifler reluctantly entered the rat race by interning at a financial firm and toiling for an obnoxious boss, Mr. Duraiswamy (Vik Sahay). (And if you think that the prospect of Stifler having an Indian boss would result in lots of unfortunate racism... you're right!) Used sparingly in the first film, Stifler became the franchise's breakout character and subsequently wound up serving as the de facto star in the next two movies. He's a prominent presence again here, and while his frat-boy-on-crack shtick quickly grows wearying, he is at center of the movie's two funniest gags: the first finds him getting all buddy-buddy with Jim's dad (a comic pairing that really should have been exploited more) and the second allows him to finally take revenge on Finch for the whole sleeping-with-Stifler's-Mom incident by sleeping with a member of his nemesis' family. You can probably see where this is going...

Jim's Dad (Eugene Levy) and Stifler's Mom (Jennifer Coolidge)
Then: Whenever Jim was at his lowest, he could always count on his well-meaning dad to act as a voice of (slightly warped) reason. Stifler's Mom, a.k.a. the Original MILF, was far less helpful to her own son, although she was an inspiration to some of the other boys in his class.
Now: With Jim's Mom having passed away three years ago, Jim's Dad is having trouble adjusting to life as a widower and newly single man. As fate would have it, Stifler's Mom is currently unattached as well and the two kick off what's sure to be a very disturbing romance for their respective children. Levy's scenes with Biggs were a highlight of the original film and the writers strain to recapture that tender father/son dynamic here without much success. On the other hand, putting Christopher Guest troupe members Levy and Coolidge together in the same scene is a guaranteed laugh-getter and the aforementioned scenes featuring Jim's Dad learning the Tao of Stifler are among the movie's few highlights.

The Ancillary Characters
Then: The original film had a deep well of funny supporting kids wandering through the halls of East Great Falls High, among them The Sherminator (Chris Owen), Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) and those two MILF guys (John Cho and Justin Isfeld). None of these folks ever pulled focus from the leads -- they were just on hand to give the film's world more comic texture.
Now: All of those folks are back, though just for a scene or two. (Cho logs the most screentime, probably because he's the only one of the bunch that went on to have a legitimate career.) Reunion does introduce a few new ancillary characters though, beginning with Selena, a heretofore unseen band camp friend of Michelle's who went from looking like a troll to having the face and body of Dania Ramirez. She's on hand to give the otherwise useless Finch a love interest, as Coolidge apparently didn't want to play Mrs. Robinson to Thomas' Benjamin Braddock one more time. The other new face is Kara (Ali Cobrin), the girl next door that Jim used to babysit who has since grown up into a very healthy 18-year-old. She's the one who keeps hitting on her old babysitter, despite the fact that he's 1) married and 2) a doofus.

The Soundtrack
Then: Between the Barenaked Ladies' "One Week", Harvey Danger's "Flagpole Sitta", Sugar Ray's "Glory", The Brian Jonestown Massacre's "Going to Hell" Third Eye Blind's "New Girl" and Blink-182's "Mutt", the first movie is like a cinematic version of an "I Love the '90s" compilation CD.
Now: There are a few '90s shout-outs (most notably the Spice Girls, whom Kara deems classic rock -- a moment that unnerves Jim and every other thirtysomething in the audience), but mostly the film's tracklist is made up of current hits like Good Charlotte's "Last Night" and LMFAO's "I'm Sexy and I Know It", which will be just as dated as "One Week" in another thirteen years (if not much sooner).

The Big Set-Piece
Then: Jim's hot encounter with his mom's apple pie may be the first movie's most iconic moment, but its centerpiece is the extended sequence in his room where he comes thisclose to bedding Nadia, only to be betrayed by his... uh, equipment. Part of the fun of that scene is the way it keeps escalating, with one thing after another going wrong for the poor guy. It's hilarious and kind of heartbreaking at the same time.
Now: It's indicative of how thoroughly the franchise is out of ideas that Reunion's big set-piece is a variation on a gag they already pulled back in American Pie 2. Trapped into driving a drunken Kara home from her 18th birthday party, Jim watches in horror as she doffs her top before passing out in his lap. Now, he's got to sneak this naked teenager back into her bedroom without her parents discovering them. While his pals keep Mom and Dad occupied downstairs, Jim tip-toes through the back door and up the stairs, laying Kara down in her bed; just when it looks like he's accomplished his mission, Stifler barges in and raises a ruckus, leading her father to come upstairs and investigate while the two interlopers duck for cover... much like the time they hid from those supposed lesbians in the second movie. Maybe it's just the lingering creep factor of the whole Kara/Jim storyline, but this sequence simply doesn't play. You can't escalate laughs when the premise of the scene isn't funny to begin with.

The Future
Then: Because the filmmakers clearly had no idea their little teenage sex comedy was going to become an ongoing franchise, the first movie ends on an appropriately bittersweet moment, with the guys having achieved their goal of popping their cherries (except for Oz, who specifically chose not to) and realizing there's more -- much more -- to life than that.
Now: After surviving a mostly listless reunion weekend, the guys have learnt to put high school behind them once and for all and toast to seeing each other more often, like once a year. Based on this movie, those reunions should definitely happen off-screen.

Click here to read the 1999 pop culture reunions we'd rather have seen.

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