Monday 30 April 2012

From the archive: "American Pie: The Wedding"

It's almost a quarter of a century since the first Porky's film hit cinema screens, and I commemorate this most dubious of film anniversaries only now, upon the release of American Pie: The Wedding, the third and possibly final entry in the series, to point out that there must be very few people waiting for Porky's 7: Pee-Wee's Nuptials or that Bachelor Party-Screwballs match-up. That first wave of teen sex comedies didn't have much time for romance, much less marriage; the only institution those characters are likely to have been invited to in the last ten years would be a sex offenders' clinic. By contrast, American Wedding (to use its abbreviated US release title) arrives as a logical progression in the Pie series.

The first American Pie, from 1999, had its young males looking to score, but there's no way those characters would have gone looking in a brothel of the Porky's persuasion, no way a post-AIDS sex romp like it would have considered depicting sex without a condom - and no way the filmmakers would pass up the opportunities this provided for jokes centred on the expansive qualities of latex and the explosive properties of semen. 2001's sequel devoted itself to making its young men better lovers: if you can't have sex with someone you love, the film proposed, at least do it with someone you know, and can trust. Well, that trust will get you places: now we find Jim (Jason Biggs) preparing to take his teenage sweetheart Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) up the aisle. Oh do stop sniggering at the back.

The defining characteristic of these films is how sweet they are, certainly in comparison with the low-budget scuzziness of their early 80s inspiration. The American Pie films are as safe as their radio-friendly soundtracks, as safe as that slightly prim manner in which all its characters drink from plastic cups, rather than swig from the bottle, at apparently wild and unchecked house parties. Increasingly, the series has become more about consolidation, building on its strengths, than about consummation: the opening credits of American Wedding are set to James's "Laid", and you'll note the past tense there: if this is to be the final instalment, then the series finishes not with a bang, but a post-coital kiss-off.

That's especially notable in the way the cast has been pared away over the trilogy. Compare the original poster - its hot, young, mixed ensemble jostling one another for space - with the poster for this latest, which appears to be operating a strict ranking system as the principals line up to disappear into infinity: Eugene Levy (Jim's dad) and Seann William Scott (Stifler), the most amusing players in the first two films, have been promoted, but Eddie Kaye Thomas and Thomas Ian Nicholas (whose appearances in the film are so few and far between a colleague wondered whether they might forsake a co-starring credit for one as "most persistent extra") have been relegated to a very distant background.

Most noticeable is the gradual downsizing of its female cast: standouts in the first film, reduced to thankless parts in the sequel. You may find yourself missing Natasha Lyonne, Mena Suvari and Tara Reid (well, two out of three), but then the reason the original's female characters were so prominent was that they were of a type previously unseen in this genre - smart, tough, and with real emotions. (These girls weren't going to put out for just anyone.) That last factor, in a series reliant on safety and formulas, upon sure things, may be the reason they're not recalled for AP3: instead, we get a pair of strippers at a stag night (where we know what they're going to do) and newcomer January Jones as Cadence, Michelle's sister and the cinema's least likely expert on Cartesian thought. Cadence, over whom Stifler and Finch come to squabble, is a more or less conventional love interest; she's there - as Descartes himself would surely observe - as a point of reference, to let us all know exactly where we are. 

Writer Adam Herz, who's done a pretty good job marshalling the series to this point, has come up with a grab-bag of sketches allowing the players to push their characters a little further along the line. Biggs stumbles into even greater embarrassment: whether it be exposing his erect member in a high-class eaterie or getting involved in what looks like a threeway with Stifler and a dog, it seems every other scene in the new film's opening half-hour ends with hs trousers around his ankles; one of the upshots of a successful teen raunch franchise, it would seem, is that its principals need no longer tighten their belts. Hannigan, given less screen time, nonetheless retains her sweetly perverse presence, that air of spacey nymphomania in her eyes; the film's barely five minutes old and she's on all fours, purring like a pussycat. And what is there still left to be said about Seann William Scott? By rights, the combination of that shit-eating grin and his appearance in Bulletproof Monk should count heavily against the guy, but it's just about impossible not to warm to someone who, within moments of his first arrival on screen, has delivered the words "my dick looks like a corn dog, I got cake all over my balls" with such matchless aplomb.

Stifler is here even more profane than he was in the first two films: he asks Jim what "the Stifmeister"'s defining characteristic is, and takes the response - "uses the F-word excessively" - as a compliment. Yet it's in the downtime between the cussing and gross-out that Herz does his real work, throwing different ideas of masculinity up against one another: the intellectual Finch versus the wholly instinctive Stifler; the latter's boorishness against the sheer likability of Jim; even Jim against his own father, with their contrasting generational ideas of what it is to be a man. The jokes only stop once Stifler kills the wedding flowers, and it may be typical of this most soft-hearted of series that the only thing that gets hurt is the horticulture, yet even this is no lasting problem - the high school footballers Stifler's been coaching are soon arranging the floral replacements and rehearsing the wedding ceremony by themselves. Even the Steve Stiflers of this world must grow up eventually, we are to understand, though it's Michelle who gets the by-words of a franchise remaining clean-cut to the very end: "Love isn't a feeling - it's about shaving your balls for somebody."

(August 2003)

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