American Pie

(Paul Weitz, USA, 1999)


There is something primal and irresistible about the spectacle of young people dancing in movies – not perfectly, like in a musical, but daggily, like in reality.

Clueless (1995), Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), Rushmore (1998): all these teen films of the late ’90s have glorious moments in which kids, grimly intent on having a good time or looking cool, start jerking their bodies around, eyes fixed in a vacant stare – often leading to some shameful, public humiliation, or to the birth of true love, or indeed both at once. (This tradition is honoured in the single great scene climaxing Napoleon Dynamite [2004].)

More important than the plot in American Pie is a string of gags centred on brave attempts to dance by Jim (Jason Biggs). He is goaded into this by an East European babe, Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth), who has used her spare moment in his bedroom to strip and masturbate (common behaviour for this genre).

Unfortunately, Jim’s hopefully raunchy gyrations are at that moment being beamed to all his schoolmates via his seeing-eye computer.

American Pie has been compared to the Porky’s movies of the early ’80s, but it is not really a gross out – the levels of fornication, masturbation and vomiting are kept pretty low. It has a greater affinity with Amy Heckerling‘s teen classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982): multiple characters, mild raunchiness, parity of male and female story threads, and an emphasis on ordinary, familiar situations at school, home and designated socialising sites (diners, proms, sports fields, concerts).

American Pie is a rather wonderful, hilarious film that hits its stride early on and never loses momentum. Director Paul Weitz (co-writer of Antz [1998]) resists the temptation to pump up his debut feature with the usual grab-bag of soundtrack songs. Instead, he concentrates on his young actors – and what a splendid, idiosyncratic lot they are.

Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is the quiet, intellectual type – a man of natty bow ties and ancient Latin quotations. His scene with the "older woman" of every teen boy’s dreams (Jennifer Coolidge) is a priceless pastiche of The Graduate (1967). Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) is the uncoolest of dags, turned away at the door from parties because of her endless, dreary monologue about "band camp". Sherman (Chris Owen) calls himself "the Shermanator" because his destiny is to travel back from the future to bring a night of unforgettable love to one special girl .

And on it goes, each character harbouring a fairly unexpected plot twist late in the piece, during or after the big prom. The only over-arching structure is provided by a classic teen movie device – everybody wants to lose their virginity before school ends and they go their separate college ways – but even that leads to many different, unforeseen conclusions.

Just about every detail in this film is funny. Jokes devoted to the mysteries of "pale ale", a "tongue tornado", and the use to which a flute can be put – not to mention the significance of that warm, apple pie in the title – will linger in my heart and mind long after Saving Private Ryan (1998) has disintegrated.

American Pie is not quite in the class of Rushmore or Never Been Kissed (1999), but it is a blessed treat. It elicits probably only two kinds of audience-types: those who will not be able to vibe with it at any level, and those who will be moved – like Jim, like Jim’s Dad (Eugene Levy), like Nadia – to dance like monkeys, crying "Long live teen movies!"

MORE Weitz: In Good Company

© Adrian Martin 16 September 1999 (40th birthday)

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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