One of the disadvantages of being old-fashioned and publishing reviews the day the movies actually come out is that nowadays, thanks to Twitter, it’s hard not to know what the forming consensus behind a movie already is, due to online colleagues who publish sooner. That said, I would probably have guessed what the reactions to American Reunion would be relative to my own, based upon prior experience with a similar movie.
The one I’m thinking of is Clerks II.
I had soured on Kevin Smith after Dogma, and went in not expecting to like anything more he was going to deliver, but that movie won me back. Like his earlier works, it was an honest, heartfelt and convincing look at people of my generation, only now they weren’t such lovable scamps, but people still holding down miserable jobs at a time in their lives when traditionally one is supposed to start figuring it all out. Dante and Randal had kept pace with my own life, and I could relate to where they now found themselves. But it didn’t seem like anyone else did. Many dismissed it as a stale retread (which it isn’t remotely when compared to the first film), and it seems clear now that the whole notion of a comedy about characters whose lives used to be raunchy comedies — or, to put it another way, teen-sex comedies aimed at grown ex-teens — is not a greatly saleable one. You could argue that Judd Apatow movies fall into that class, but they really don’t – his protagonists tend not to be the kind of folks who scored early and often in high school, but older man-children finally landing a real woman.
So, consider your own reaction to Clerks II as you read on, and if you hated it, odds are good that you should simply believe the opposite of every subsequent sentence herein. And with that out of the way:
The American Pie franchise is the only one I can think of that has gone for four films (we’ll politely ignore the DVD spin-offs) and actually gets better every single time. In large part this is due to it not being all that much to start with — in 1999, the gimmick of an actual R-rated teen movie with fully developed characters and nudity was a major novelty, and that was enough. The sequel, which involved renting a lake house, pared the cast down to manageable size and allowed us to spend more time with the principals, and by part three, inevitably, the cast showed some real growth as an ensemble (save Eugene Levy, whose shtick has barely changed at all…until this newest installment, which is a welcome addition).
Full disclosure: There may be a sentimental factor. 1999 was also my first year as a professional film critic, and you could probably make a case that any movie calling back to that specific year has a head-start in my heart. I would disagree, but you could argue that. Then you might wonder why these characters are having a 13-year reunion. No special reason, aside from real-world shooting schedules; In the movie, they simply offer a throwaway line about how they finally got it together to put on a reunion. Gets it out there, and deals immediately.
So where are they all now? Jim (Jason Biggs) is still a dangerous masturbator, even after becoming married (with a child) to the no-longer-so-perverse Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), who is equally into doing the hand solo but misses the pre-kid alone-time with her hubby. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), the most forgettable of the bunch, is happily married but emasculated, as displayed by the fact that he only watches TV shows like Real Housewives that his significant other is clearly picking for them. Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) shows up on a motorcycle with wild stories about being a world traveler. Oz (Chris Klein, finally realizing it’s best to stay in his comfort zone) is a TV sports host with a Lindsay Lohan-esque party girlfriend (Katrina Bowden). Stifler (Seann William Scott) is refreshingly unchanged in attitude, but now stripped of all his status in his role as a lowly corporate intern.
Meanwhile, Jim’s mother has been killed off at some unspecified juncture, finally giving Eugene Levy’s never-named Dad something new to play. With some help from Jim, he tries to get back into dating again, despite being tremendously dorky, and encounters Stifler’s mom (Jennifer Coolidge), which, as anybody can tell you who has seen both actors work together in Christopher Guest’s comedies, is A Good Thing.
It could be that the negativity aimed at movies like American Reunion is based on the fact that the dilemma has switched for our leads; Rather than seeking out casual sex, they must avoid it even as temptations are thrown at them in oft-ludicrous fashion. Fealty is something we aspire to in life, and it is arguably harder to take vicarious pleasure in it than the bacchanalia of the best teen flicks. But that’s why Stifler’s around: his pure id would be unbearable in real life, but in the movies, it’s just what the other characters need as yang to the yin (why they keep having to figure this out anew in every sequel, though…).
Another possible point of contention, and indeed a minor disappointment, is that the series kicked off with a film that had both male and female characters equally looking for love. As the actresses broke big first, they were the quickest to leave the franchise (Tara Reid, Mena Suvari, Natasha Lyonne, Shannon Elizabeth…yes, they did all seem to be breaking big back then) and by necessity things focused more on the guys. Here, although every significant character in the series is back for at least a cameo — including John Cho, a glorified extra in the first and now perhaps the biggest star of them all — the female characters are mostly props. It’s the guys’ story 100%, which was inevitable.
So what makes this the best of the series? Aside from the way these characters and actors continue to grow together, it’s the sum of smaller moments. Klein’s Marky Mark flashback scene. Stifler’s ridiculous revenge plot against the younger generation of a-hole pussy-hounds. The sweet role reversal between Jim and his dad. The turn Finch’s character takes, and the way his antagonistic relationship with Stifler finally plays out. The fact that when all is said and done, these guys show that you can fall short of what you imagined, compromise what you thought you were in a relationship, and still hang your head high and flip the world off once you embrace your true self and the bonds of commitment and friendship which can grow with age.
Call me sentimental, but I like that message best when delivered in a flood of beer and profanity. Also this was way more fun than my actual reunion. Can’t wait for American Midlife Crisis…or, wait, didn’t Mena Suvari make that already?