Luke Owen feasts on the ‘American Pie’ trilogy…
Before I begin this week’s issue, I can already hear a lot of you alerting me to rule number one of my Talkin’ Trilogy series:
1. “It has to be a trilogy”
So, the question is, is American Pie really a trilogy? I referred to Indiana Jones in my introduction as an example of a trilogy that became a quadrilogy after a fourth instalment thus negating its standings in the trilogy world; however American Pie has never had a true follow up after the third film. Sure, there have been a whopping four spin off movies over the last 6 years, but they never felt like true American Pie movies. They were deformed straight to DVD absurdities that leeched off the name of a popular franchise. So yes, American Pie is a trilogy in the truest sense of the word and no amount of Band Camps or Naked Miles are going to change my mind about that.
I am going to look at the true American Pie series. The franchise that brought us the term MILF, gave the screen debut of Seann William Scott and taught us that warm apple pies can be used for other activities other than eating.
So, as with all trilogies, let’s delve back to its humble beginnings where debut screenwriter Adam Herz had just finished a teen comedy with a rather strange title…
American Pie (Weitz, 1999)
Much like the slasher genre, teen romp comedies populated movie screens during the 1980s, but the 90s brought about dark times for the genre – much like slasher movies. Teen movies did exist, but not in the same shape they took a decade earlier. Teen movies now took the form of films such as Hackers, Mallrats and Clueless – which brought about a different depiction of teenagers. Just like its slasher counterpart, it seemed as though the genre had moved on.
But not for Adam Herz. “I wanted to know what happened to all these great movies from the 80s, about teenagers running around wanting to have sex” he said in a 2004 interview with Lumino Magazine. This notion stuck with him while he was working as a PA on several movie productions. Because he needed time to develop an idea and write the script, he quit his job and began to max out credit cards. He continued, “I wrote enough to give to the people who managed me. They said the first two pages [were] genius, but the other 28 were shit. They said what I needed to do is take those fist two pages and make all 28 like that. So I thought, let’s just make this movie about guys who want to get laid. And when I had that idea, I really wrote the script in two to three weeks.”
It’s amazing to think that film was never originally titled American Pie given the cultural standing it has today. In fact, upon completion, the film didn’t have a title at all. When Herz handed the script into studios, it bared the title: Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made For Under $10 Million That Most Readers Will Probably Hate But I Think You Will Love. It was this title that gained people’s interest in the script, but it was the brilliance of the writing that really electrified the studios. It was Universal that eventually picked up the script and it was finally given a title: East Great Falls High after the school Adam Herz attended and based the script upon. That was later shortened to Great Falls before finally landing on American Pie.
The story focuses around 4 high school friends who, despite their different personalities, all share one thing in common – they’re virgins. After a house party, they decide to make a pact: They all have to lose their virginity before they graduate high school. The idea being that if they help each other out, they will have a better chance of actually succeeding.
While its premise was a good hark back to the teen movies that time had forgotten, American Pie is really known for 2 key scenes that would be synonymous with the film’s success. The first of which is the web show of foreign exchange student Nadia changing in Jim’s room which leads to him prematurely ejaculating twice when she tries to touch him. And the second of which is the scene in which Jim takes Kevin and Oz’s explanation of third base one step too far…
I was talking a few moments ago about the title of the film but never really explained where it came from. Whether Herz or directors Paul and Chris Weitz had any idea how much the visual of Jason Biggs making love to an apple pie would have the impact it did will forever remain unknown, but it would really be the focal point of not just the movie, but the advertising campaign that came with it – a lot like the ‘hair gel’ sequence from There’s Something About Mary. It would also become a bit of a curse for poor Jason Biggs who would forever be known for that scene.
For me though, what makes American Pie so special and why it stood out so much was its characters.
Almost everyone in American Pie is incredibly likeable and loveable. On top of that, they all have wonderful and believable dialogue that sounds like it was written specifically for them. That may sound like a ridiculous statement, but a lot of characters in teen romp comedies from the 80s (and comedy movies in general) didn’t have distinguishable voices – everyone sounded the same. Herz eluded to this an interview in 2004 with Lumino Magazine, “If you read a bad screen play, all the characters sound the same, but obviously life isn’t like that. Everyone knows a Stifler, everyone went to high school with one, so I [just] thought of a couple of jackasses that I went to high school with.”
The Stifler he is talking about is one of the characters that really established the film to the status it has today – Steve Stifler. Stifler is the sort of character who was always destined to be popular much like John Blutarsky in Animal House. He’s rude, lewd and has all the quotable lines. But all the credit can’t just be put down to Adam Herz’s script, what really brought the character to life was the debuting Seann William Scott who really had the character down and knew exactly how to play him. It was the role that propelled Scott into the superstar he is today. In fact without Stifler, I’m not sure that American Pie would have the following it had and continues to have.
However, I don’t think anyone anticipated the success that American Pie was to have as a whole. For a film that had a simple $10 million budget, the film took a worldwide gross revenue of over $235 million after opening on July 9th 1999. American Pie was a runaway success and it’s really not hard to see why.
American Pie is one of the best teen films ever made. What impresses me even more with the film is that it actually surpasses the films it was trying to emulate in terms of entertainment. All the characters are well rounded; the story – while puerile – has a lot of heart and warmth. The film may have had a backbone structure about 4 guys who want to lose their virginities, but at the end of the day it’s about four friends and their last time together as high schoolers before going their separate ways to college.
While it may have not received the greatest of praise from movie critics (however some loved it), the fans demanded more. And more they were going to get.
American Pie 2 (Rogers, 2001)
“If everything works out the way we planned, the sequel is going to deliver big time”. Those were the words that Adam Herz told fan website piemovie2.com after the first two weeks of filming. Herz and the team knew that most sequels never quite match the first instalment, “we don’t want to make a crappy sequel any more than you want to see one” he continues, “To that end, we’ve been working our butts off to make sure that American Pie 2 maintains the integrity, humor, and heart of the original – and we feel it does.” So the question really is, did they manage to do it?
American Pie 2 takes place during a reunion summer for the four friends after their first year of college. In order to make the most of said summer, they rent out a house by the beach to have “the best summer ever” and cap it all off with a big party. During all of this, Kevin is trying to get back together Vicky, Oz is missing Heather while she travels the world, Finch experiments with Tantric sex and Jim prepares for the party which will be attended by Nadia – the one who got away.
Now while I admit that the storyline for the first film was hardly a work of genius, the follow up is incredibly uninspiring. However, as it was with the first film, the weak story is carried and saved by the cast of characters.
Having become a cultural icon, it was no surprise that Stifler was given a much bigger role in this film. While an obvious choice, it was a fairly bold move. Stifler only had a very small supporting role within the first instalment and there could be a worry that too much over-exposure would damage the character’s appeal. Luckily for the filmmakers, Stifler is once again one of the highlights of the movie. While Jim is always going to be the focus and will get most of the show stealing scenes, Stifler does a good job of still having the best lines and being one of the most appealing things about the film.
The same cannot be said for one of the biggest deterrents of the original movie – Kevin.
Kevin Myers is an awful character. He was dreadful in the first film and his annoying habits were amplified for the second. In the first film, he does nothing but whinge about not having sex with his girlfriend and this film, he whinges about not doing things with his friends. You could have a really funny scene with Jim super gluing his hand to his “little man” only to be followed by Kevin complaining that they’re not playing cards together. He’s a wet character that really brings the tone of the film down.
Aside from the afore mentioned “super glue” incident, there really is only one other stand out sequence in American Pie 2 which involves the Stifler breaking into the house of two girls to prove that they are in fact lesbians. While fairly amusing, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Nadia web show or “pie scene” from the first instalment.
And that is the main problem that American Pie 2 has – it doesn’t quite meet the brilliance of the first film. Kenneth Turan of the L.A Times summed up in his review upon the film’s release, “A copy all the way, a disheartening attempt to capitalize on the success of the original.” Although American Pie 2 is a really worthy follow up to American Pie, it never feels like it would ever surpass it. Some of the charm of the original was lost in the wake of American Pie clones such as Van Wilder and unfortunately American Pie 2 just never really gets going. Which is a real shame as some of it is genuinely funny.
American Pie 2 opened on August 10th 2001 and has grossed slightly better that its predecessor taking over $287 million. The power of the Pie (and Stifler) was running strong and although it didn’t fare well with the critics, the fans wanted more. However, Herz knew that he couldn’t just carbon copy the first two films; it was time for these characters to truly “take the next step”.
American Pie: The Wedding (Dylan, 2003)
Everyone, even characters in teen sex comedies, have to grow up – and what better way to grow up then to tie the knot.
Over the 2 previous movies we saw the relationship between loser Jim and nympho Michelle grow and blossom until they finally got together at the end of the second movie. Now they have both graduated, Jim decides to pop the question. Only problem is, he’s a screw up and nothing ever goes right for him. He is now on a mission to prove that he can be a man and a good husband. But, as with everything in Jim’s life, it doesn’t always go to plan…
For the first time in the series, American Pie: The Wedding actually proposes (excuse the pun) an actual plot that is intriguing and interesting. Herz did away with the bawdy “let’s just get drunk and have sex” and instead we are presented with an actual heart-warming story of two sweethearts tying the knot.
However, this is an American Pie movie, so of course it’s completely lewd. Foreign strippers, eating faeces, pouring pubic hair onto family, it’s all here in true American Pie fashion – and this is where part of the problem lies.
You see, in the years between American Pie and American Pie: The Wedding, cinema had seen an influx of bawdy teen sex comedies that tried to cash in on the Pie’s success. While they never quite matched it, it gave Herz the tricky task of trying to top them. Set pieces have to be lewder, the nudity has to be bigger and the swear count had to be higher. This is all well and good giving the genre it’s in; but that means the main character arch of Jim trying to become the perfect husband for his wife-to-be is sidelined so they can push more of the lewdness. And when you want to push lewdness, you don’t get much lewder that Steve Stifler – which is where the other part of the problem lies.
By this point in the franchise, we’d only seen Stifler in a side and supporting role which is where he excelled. He was given a bigger role in the second film, but he was never given the big push. He just got to stay in the wings, have his funny lines, be a jerk and steal the scene but never compromise the main plot. In American Pie: The Wedding, Stifler was given centre stage and the biggest plot thread of the film.
Stifler has taken a shine to Michelle’s sister Candace and wants to sleep with her. However, Finch has also taken a shine to her – leading to a battle of “wits” to win her over. They both listen in on two separate conversations in order to find out what she likes in a man. Finch hears that she likes the rude, brash and outlandish type of man – a Stifler if you will. But Stifler hears that she likes intellectual men – a Finch you might say. All of this leads to a “hilarious” role reversal of character typres that swallows up the rest of the movie.
By American Pie: The Wedding, the Stifler character had jumped the shark. I don’t blame Seann William Scott so much, but he just comes off as annoying and obnoxious rather than funny in the third movie. Maybe it was the overexposure of the character on screen, or maybe it was just that we’ve seen him do all of this in two previous movies so it didn’t feel fresh anymore. Whatever the reason, Stifler is the worst part of this movie – and he’s the main role.
Which is why American Pie: The Wedding doesn’t work as a film for me. The series went from a bawdy sex comedy to an amalgamation of annoying scenes involving characters that had grown tired that was trying to be sweet and heart-warming. The film had to be one or the other; you can’t have your pie and eat it.
All of this aside, one of the most striking things about American Pie: The Wedding is that it’s missing a lot of the original cast members from the first two films. According to most web pages I looked at, this was down to Adam Herz not being able to find storylines for every character – forcing them in would have made them superfluous pieces to the film. Which is actually a good reason not to have them in the film, but could they not have attended the wedding as cameo appearances? According to Chris Klein’s IMDB page, he had scheduling conflicts with a play he was performing in London. Herz apparently also stated that they couldn’t secure a cameo for him because the budget wouldn’t allow for the expense. Now, whether I believe that or not is a different matter, but my problem with all this is that the characters aren’t even mentioned by name. A simple one line of dialogue would have sufficed that could have place Oz and Heather in Europe and unable to attend or explained the whereabouts of Vicky, Nadia, Sherman etc. I know it seems nitpicky and there are bigger faults with the film to dissect, but the lack of these characters really hurts the film. Without them, it doesn’t really feel like a true part of the franchise.
American Pie: The Wedding opened on August 1st 2003 and has grossed the least of the three movies with $231 million – further proof that the series was coming to a much needed close. Fans didn’t react to the film as well as the first two instalments and the critics didn’t respond either. Manhola Dargis of the L.A Times called it, “the grossest and least funny instalment of the American Pie series” while Michael Rechtshaffen from Hollywood Reporter said “the familiar formula feels significantly watered-down the third time around.”
So the series came to a much needed close. But, as I mentioned at the start of this review, there were other slices of pie to be sampled.
American Pie Spin offs and Reunion
Universal commissioned a straight-to-DVD movie called American Pie Presents: Band Camp, which had none of the original cast (save for Eugene Levy) and wasn’t written by Adam Herz. This was successful enough that Universal commissioned a further 3 spin off movies including The Naked Mile, Beta House and The Book of Love which focuses on “The Bible” which Kevin found in the first movie. The movies all feature off-shoots of the Stifler family, further proving the fact that the producers felt Stifler was the most bankable character they had. However, according to most reviews I’ve read, these films are not very good at all and aren’t even worthy of being held alongside the original trilogy. It seemed as though the series was doomed to be milked for all its worth with these atrocious direct-to-DVD sequels.
However last month it was announced that American Pie 4 (tentatively named American Reunion) will begin principal photography on May 24th with Jason Biggs, Seann William Scott and Eugene Levy signed on. Joining them will be Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein and Mena Suvari – which means that a lot of the original cast will be returning. Will this be the real closing the series we wanted with American Pie: The Wedding? Or will it just be another udder of the cash cow being pulled like the spin off DVD releases?
Before I sign off for this instalment, I just wanted to give credit where credit is due for the true unsung hero of the American Pie franchise – Eugene Levy.
Jim’s Dad (who was never given a name until American Pie Presents: The Book of Love) is far and away the best and most consistent character in the franchise. And this is all down to Eugene Levy’s incredible sense of comic timing, facial expressions and ability to hold a really uncomfortable scene and make it even more uncomfortable for the audience. Stifler may be the character that brought in the fans, but it was Jim’s Dad that never let them down.
“I have to admit, you know, I did the fair bit of… masturbating when I was a little younger. I used to call it stroking the salami, yeah, you know, pounding the old pud. I never did it with baked goods though…” Jim’s Dad (American Pie, 1999)