WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: Four high-school friends make a pact to lose their virginity before they graduate, the snag being that only one of them has a girlfriend – and she’s not putting out. As the weeks count down, Jim, Kev, ‘Oz’ and Finch try to secure their sure things; but for Jim especially, public humiliations seem destined to ensure that their mission is doomed.
Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) experiences the usual growing pains when his parents disturb his onanistic activities; but his friends are also prisoners to their hormones. At a party hosted by their brash acquaintance Stifler (Seann William Scott), Jim’s interest in foreign student Nadia (Elizabeth Shannon) is ruined by his all-consuming awkwardness; Kev’s (Thomas Ian Nicholas) relationship with Vicky (Tara Reid) is stalling somewhere around third base; Chris, or ‘Oz’ (Chris Klein), discovers that his self-given nickname ‘Casanova’ isn’t as alluring as he hoped; and Finch, or ‘Sh*tbreak’ (because of his OCD habits in regard to personal hygiene) is merely waiting for the right woman.
When the men find themselves outshone in the sex department by the ghastly Chuck Sherman (Chris Owen), aka The Shermanator, they resolve to do something about the millstone of virginity hanging around their necks by agreeing to cast it off by prom night. For Finch, that means doing nothing to tarnish the romantic legend he mysteriously has within the school. For Oz, it means letting his sensitive, singing side out at the expense of his lacrosse-playing jockularity, in the hope of wooing pretty chorister Heather (Mena Suvari). For Kev, it means treating Vicky less selfishly and perhaps even bringing himself to say the ‘L’ word (note for Scott Pilgrim fans: it’s still not “lesbians”). And for Jim – oh, poor Jim – it means less experimentation with warm baked goods and more taking of opportunities, such as when Nadia comes round for help with her studies and ends up semi-naked in his bed. Unfortunately, that doesn’t quite go to plan either, meaning that the only available date for the prom is geeky flautist Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), who doesn’t – on the surface at least – seem to offer great opportunities for popping his cherry.
In the considered opinion of certain sections of society, American Pie was proof positive that other sections of society – youths, essentially – were uncultured, filthy, sex-obsessed monsters, making this movie nothing more than the Porky’s of the day. Certain episodes seem to bear this out: Stifler drinking (and regurgitating) semen-laced lager; Finch being forced by laxatives not to take a break for once; and, famously, Jim’s disastrously premature conclusions to his encounter with Nadia being broadcast via webcam to the whole school. It’s all juvenile stuff, but behind these scenes there’s a more mature sensibility than you might expect. For while the lads (and some of the ladies) feel immense peer pressure to lose their virginity, those with their heads screwed on (notably Natasha Lyonne’s Jessica) are on hand to give good advice: ‘It’s not a space shuttle launch – it’s sex’, Jessica says at one point; ‘It’s not that damn important’, Jim says later on. Of course, nobody laughs at these bits, but American Pie is far more conservative, positive and orthodox than many give it credit for.
I may be suffering from a bout of absurd generosity, but I think American Pie works because its heart is very much in the right place. All Hollywood movies exist to make money for the studios, of course, and neither the gross-out gags nor Nadia’s boobs (perhaps surprisingly, the only pair on display) are going to hurt ticket sales from snickering teenagers; but I honestly believe that these are no more important to the film’s success than the positive message that drives the film, namely that you should like and respect the people you have sex with, including/especially the first time you do it. You could even argue that the notorious bits are just a sweetener to lure people in. Plus, the juvenile gags are actually very funny. Even when the humour blatantly serves no other purpose than to shock, it works – witness the success of the word ‘MILF’, which this film didn’t invent but certainly popularised.
Besides, the film works because Jason Biggs makes Jim such a normal, lovable loser. He’s as much curious as he is priapic, and his double act with Eugene Levy as his well-meaning but equally awkward father gives the film a warm and extremely funny heart. And although Hannigan only gets a limited amount of screen time, she is obviously a gifted comedian, wringing every irritating ounce of fun from her interrogative inflection. She also gets the film’s best line, though I couldn’t possibly tell you what it is here. This trio helps us overlook the fact that neither Nicholas nor Klein light up the screen with acting luminescence, and Scott’s awful Stifler is only made at all bearable by the fact that he doesn’t get much screen time (unaccountably, the sequels found him the most interesting character of the bunch).
The American Pie series has certainly been a case of diminishing returns, in entertainment value if not financially; but taken on its own merits, the original is a highly entertaining slice of coming-of-age life with a realistic (kids do have sex), honest (hey, boys knock one out once in a while) and essentially responsible message for its target audience. It’s a shame that the sequels and spin-offs – though this is hearsay as I’ve only seen The (ghastly) Naked Mile – dispense with this message in the pursuit of ever more bare flesh and outlandish grossness.