The first episode of Michael Palin’s “Ripping Yarns” began with a quote from G. K. Chesterton: “The follies of men’s youth are in retrospect glorious compared to the follies of old age.” I didn’t expect to think of this when I bought my tickets to see “American Pie: Reunion”. I thought I’d get a dose of comedy and it would be ridiculous and awkward. I also had the passing fear that it would be an absolute stinker. After all, I thought, it could be a teenage comedy that lacked teenagers. But a statement about youth and old age and the follies that befall both? That seemed unlikely.
I’d seen the original film, I hadn’t seen the intervening ones. I had heard the basics about the plot of the sequels: essentially the awkward teenager of the first film, Jim (Jason Biggs) married the girl who took his virginity, Michelle (Alyson Hannigan). I presumed some talk of an orgiastic Band Camp, the ravishing of baked goods and the character Stiffler (Seann William Scott) acting like a presumptuous fool were consistent themes throughout the series. I probably would have left it at that; my other half persuaded me that this latest offering was worth a look.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked by how much the actors have aged; with the exception of Jason Biggs, these formerly teen stars have very visibly matured. For example, I almost didn’t recognise Mena Suvari, who returns as Heather; I had to look at her several times to be sure it was the same actress. In line with the actors ageing, their characters have also picked up adult responsibilities: Jim and Michelle have a 2 year old son. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is a stay-at-home architect. Oz (Chris Klein) works as a successful sportscaster, albeit his career is interspersed with an embarrassing episode on a celebrity dance competition. Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is still sophisticated if somewhat mysterious, but his years have caught up with his persona. Their problems have matured as well: for example, Jim and Michelle have difficulty keeping the spark in their marriage, Jim seeks solace from the internet. Only Stiffler still firmly holds onto the follies of youth: while he works merely as a dogsbody in the office of an investment firm, he still is as sexist, inebriated and crude as he was in 1999.
The real star of the film, however, may be the irrepressible and ageless Eugene Levy, who returns to play Jim’s dad, Noah. He continues as both a source of advice and far too much information. In this episode, Noah has been a widower for three years. Yet, he is reluctant to return to the dating game.
A high school reunion provides the context for all these characters to meet again. Almost as soon as Jim unloads the car in front of his childhood home, he is reminded of the pleasures to be had in youthful follies: his young neighbour Kara (Ali Cobrin), whom he babysat when he was a teenager, has turned into a voluptuous young woman who evidently desires him. Stiffler tempts his friends with endless shots of hard liquor and engages in pranks more suited to someone half his age. Oz finds his teenage love for Heather still smoulders in his heart and ponders the mistakes he’s made, in particular, dating a hedonistic model. Finch shows up on a motorcycle, presenting himself as far more daring than his prosaic reality would suggest. Yet they are adults now, and apart from Stiffler, they have accepted this as part of life’s natural progression: they realise the blossom of their youth has faded, and this only becomes more evident when they see teenagers at the same places to which they used to go. There is a wistfulness in their discovery that their horizons have narrowed; there is even comedic value. For example, Jim, as a responsible adult, tries to get a very drunk Kara back to her home and family; in the process she gets in every manner of position to incriminate him despite his complete and often baffled innocence. Nevertheless, all these characters apart from Stiffler have grown: Stiffler’s stunted development is shown to be a road to nowhere. It is perhaps this aspect, most of all, that makes the film work. If the original was all about the humour inherent in the awkwardness of growing up, this one refuses to keep drawing its laughs from the same source.
Additionally, credit can be given to Eugene Levy’s portion of the film; his character could use more than a bit of folly, a rush of fresh air in a life which is shown to have become musty and stale. He finds it in getting his eyebrows plucked (a scene which is comedy gold), trying on a variety of unsuccessful outfits, getting wildly drunk and acquiring a surprising new girlfriend.
This film doesn’t succeed on every level; Michelle’s outrage at Jim’s antics seems overblown, especially since she’s known since 1999 that he’s a well meaning if accident prone goofball. Less is perhaps made of the fact that Jim is a father than could have been done; his little boy mimicking some of his behaviours and words was perhaps a missed comic opportunity. The teenagers are uniformly attractive, as if they’d walked out of lingerie and sportswear catalogues: the main characters remark that the young women are “sluttier” than they used to be, perhaps a nod to the fact that the original film presented adolescents as not necessarily being at all attractive. Too much effort may have been made in including all the characters from the original: for example, this film bothered to include two minor ones (two boys who repeatedly shouted “MILF” at a portrait of Stiffler’s mother) which I’d completely forgotten. I didn’t need to know that the pages of Jim’s teenage pornographic magazine collection were stuck together. A cameo by the still extremely alluring Rebecca de Mornay was much too contrived and obvious. Michelle and Jim’s reconciliation in a high school band room was as silly as much as it was touching.
Nevertheless, I liked this film; I enjoyed it much more than the first in the series. Whereas I had to put my hand over my eyes at times while watching the original, in this instance, I laughed far more than I cringed. I cheered on Eugene Levy’s Noah, I wanted Jim and Michelle to find a way forward; I wanted a happy ending, in a figurative sense, for them all. Unexpectedly, given the story’s roots in an unrestrained portrayal of adolescence, the films have grown up; I suggest that by abandoning the follies of youth, and showing the joys, irritations, happiness and sorrows of maturity, they’ve become much better.