Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: July 9, 1999
Directed by: Paul Weitz
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
The coming-of-age story has a long history in American cinema. For over a hundred years, audiences have been watching their heroes grow up onscreen and overcome the challenges of impending adulthood. That narrative gets a swift kick in the pants in “American Pie.”
Usually the story of the hero’s journey involves facing adversity and passing through some kind of test of character. Often, this involves the heroes embarking against their will on some kind of epic quest, only to find at the end that they had the strength within them all along. “American Pie” is about four teenagers who are trying to get laid before the prom.
It’s a fit tale for the age, perhaps. After all, when all of the dragons lie slain, who shall rise to slay dragons? Like it or not, modern man does not live in a fast-paced sci-fi wonderland full of blaster fights and sudden revelations that Darth Vader is one’s real father. No, this is an age without frontiers and without Death Stars, so in an odd way, “American Pie” might actually have captured the spirit of its age. Perhaps mindless sensual hedonism really is the place for adventure nowadays.
Starting from this somewhat diminished premise-which, to be fair, isn’t the filmmakers’ fault-“American Pie” launches out into a cultural niche that is all its own. Four young men, Jim (Jason Biggs), Oz (Chris Klein), Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), and Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), have made a pact to lose their virginity by prom night by hook or by crook. Hilarity ensues as the hapless young men bring an uncharacteristic determination and resolve to the task at hand. Also, one of them has sexual intercourse with a pie. Jim’s Dad (Eugene Levy) is not amused by this, or indeed by anything else the boys get up to.
The cast of “American Pie” does a fine job with the script it’s been handed. Often, it starts to feel as though the pace of the film is slowing down, only to be rescued by a well-timed piece of physical comedy. It isn’t easy to convince most actors to get up on a table and-hopefully-simulate sex with a pie, but all the actors in “American Pie” seem to be good sports about the jobs they’ve been cast to perform. Eugene Levy is especially good in the movie. The nice thing about Levy is that, as a professional actor, he seems almost totally free of the vice of vanity. Much like Patrick Stewart, he’s capable of delivering any line that a writer crams in his mouth, and with such sincerity that one would think he wrote it himself. In all of his movie and TV appearances, there’s hardly a scene in which he doesn’t seem to know exactly how ridiculous his role is going to be, and there’s hardly a scene in which he doesn’t live up to his reputation for rolling with the slings and arrows of outrageous direction.
Speaking of which, “American Pie” was directed by Paul Weitz, who seemed to have an eerie premonition of how successful the film was going to be while he was still overseeing production on it. Over and over again, Weitz brought almost the entire cast and crew along for one retake after another, as if merely shooting a silly gross-out teen comedy wasn’t going to be good enough for him. This dedication shows in the finished product, as the blocking of every frame in the film is as nearly perfect as a director could arrange. Every actor is on his or her mark and delivers his or her lines with the intensity and emphasis that’s called for by the scene. The actors have clearly been made to understand their characters inside and out, regardless of how small or incidental the role might have been.
Truth be told, “American Pie” is quite far from being a masterpiece of modern American film. The plot is thinly contrived, the dialogue flags often, and whenever a hole opens in the script, it’s plugged with the big-budget Hollywood film equivalent of a whoopee cushion.
That having been said, not every production in the world needs to be Macbeth. “American Pie” is a generally lighthearted film that manages to succeed on its own terms and with its own audience. The fact that the audience is largely self-selected and the movie’s terms are drawn very narrowly doesn’t seriously affect the ultimate success of “American Pie” and its effort to keep the audience laughing for an afternoon.