**/**** Image B Sound A- Extras C
starring Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein, Eugene Levy
written and directed by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg
by Bill Chambers The conceptual pretext for American Reunion is actually pretty brilliant when you consider that any sequel to a years-old teen movie (see also: Scream 4) holds the same ghoulish appeal as a high-school reunion--although enough of the American Pie cast has aged in the spotlight that the novelty wears off faster than it did when, say, "Still the Beaver" aired to an audience of appreciative rubberneckers back in 1983. In fact, one character appears to have been retconned in for the express purpose of providing the dramatic before-and-after contrast that's mostly missing from the film: As Selena, the lovely Dania Ramirez is engulfed in hideous prosthetics for a yearbook photo that instantly and a little cruelly betrays her as a member of band (nicknamed "Lard Arms") to her former classmates. At any rate, once the eyes adjust to Chris Klein's receding hairline and Thomas Ian Nicholas's douche beard, the big question becomes whether the American Pie formula--or should I say brand (and it is a brand, thanks to mercenary dtv sequels that catered to an audience of undiscriminating/horny teenagers)--can accommodate actors in their mid-30s. More specifically, since casting older is a genre staple, actors in their mid-30s playing their age.
One of the more provocative scenes in the movie, then, is a kind of evil "Juicy Fruit" ad that finds a group of teenage boys snatching the bikini tops off various sunbathers--such as Oz's (Klein) shallow girlfriend, Mia (Katrina Bowden)--and fleeing with them to the other side of the island on their jet skis. Our gang never did anything quite so rapey (unless you count them surreptitiously filming Shannon Elizabeth's Nadia getting undressed--a video that's still peculiarly viral in this movie's universe), but no matter how satisfying it is when Stifler shits in their beer cooler and crashes their hardware in retaliation, it did occur to me that the movie we should be watching is about those kids, perhaps one that could very well be the latest product in the aforementioned "American Pie Presents" line. Restoring the characters to ground zero--they're back at their childhood homes and high-school haunts--after the relatively adult-skewing hijinks of American Wedding effectively makes them interlopers in their own film, and it not only freights their every interaction with the younger set with a generational sanctimony that may or may not be warranted (it's amazing how gentle and kind the American Pie protags seem next to anyone in Project X), but also tips the balance of power to their side. Bigger, older, enfranchised, they've become, however reluctantly, the crusty deans, the thuggish jocks, the Ted Knight in any snobs vs. slobs conflicts that might arise.
But the jet-ski kids also point up something admirably unique about the American Pie saga (original trilogy), which is that until now they've never really had anything resembling an antagonist. These are hang-out movies by design, and even this one retreats from its de facto villains sooner than anticipated, unable to work up much antipathy for them. There's something almost European about that absence of animus, not to mention a curious habit of protracting nude scenes until we grow desensitized to the naked female onscreen, but the films live up to their declared nationality by undermining that sophistication with loads of sitcom technique and painfully generic characterizations. It's practically a satire of the generation that grew up on these movies that Jim and friends are so utterly hollow, with Nicholas's Kevin being the worst offender of the males as a guy whose biggest problem in life is that he's so content to watch reality-TV and cook at home with his hot wife, he's obviously in dire need of some bro time.
It's conventional wisdom that Eugene Levy (as Jim's Dad) is the highlight of the American Pie flicks--especially the first one--but that was never truer than in this fourth instalment, in which he's made a widower whose loneliness is palpable and seems insurmountable compared to the problems his son's friends face. There's always been a hint of pathos in Mr. Levenstein's efforts to reach out to his only child with desperately frank pep talks, but when he uses graphic language this time around, you can tell his--Mr. Levenstein's, that is--heart's not in it, and your own heart breaks. A montage of Jim's Dad trying on a succession of same-ish shirts for his J-Date profile pic definitely doesn't reinvent the comedy wheel, but it's oddly touching to watch the joke progress and realize the cocoon he'd spun for himself as a happily-married man. "I've been out of the game for so long there wasn't even a game back then," he tells Jim, and we wonder about all the Mr. Levensteins out there suddenly faced with the prospect of starting over in a 2.0 world. As an aside, the title American Reunion serves as a double entendre by righting a previous wrong and letting Christopher Guest vets Levy and Jennifer Coolidge bounce off each other in scenes that have charm and soulfulness, albeit of the sort the film can't wait to deflate.
Alas, American Reunion isn't about Jim's Dad, nor should it be. The unfortunate thing is that the role reversal that takes place between Jim and his father is only a small part of Jim's subplot, which mostly deals with the postpartum stagnation of his sex life with Michelle (Alyson Hannigan). (I suppose we should be grateful that American Baby didn't immediately follow American Wedding.) In theory, that's not a bad idea--if maturing audiences were going to relate to anything here, it'd probably be losing their mojo to the kids--but the filmmakers never get at the root of the problem, or more accurately oversimplify it. And I frankly still don't understand Jim's Martian impulses: The man who fucked a pie and shoved a trombone up his ass dons, in American Reunion, leather chaps to bang his wife in somebody else's house. For all that, one of the most observant moments in the picture has Jim nudging his buddies while Mia adjusts her top on the beach. "Look: sideboob," he says, as though it's the greatest thing ever--and for a man ironically returned by marriage to an adolescent state of sexual deprivation, it probabky is.
Points for consistency, I guess, on the part of Harold & Kumar creators Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, taking over for screenwriter Adam Herz (a credited producer along with the original's co-directors Chris and Paul Weitz), yet they often achieve this simply by repeating what was done before. Oz and Heather (Mena Suvari), for instance, rehash their star-cross'd courtship from the first film, while exes Kevin and Vicki replay their awkward--and I do mean awkward, owing to another Tara Reid performance where she has the response time of a pull-string toy (she looks better than expected, though)--attempts at some kind of Platonic relationship from American Pie 2. That stuff was painful enough once, and though Klein and Suvari are in the same room again after spending most of the first sequel acting out separate halves of phone conversations, truthfully whatever chemistry they had at the beginning has dissipated to nothing except the half-life.
And then there was Stifler.
I don't remember American Wedding all that well (or fondly), but as I recall it, too, was about Jim, et al trying to prevent Stifler from debauching a special occasion. Stifler prevailed there and does so again in American Reunion--but that's okay, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, although American Wedding is canon and grossed as much as American Pie (and double what Reunion did, it's worth mentioning), this movie clearly wants to pretend it didn't happen so as to avoid awkward exposition rationalizing the no-shows at Jim and Michelle's nuptials--including Ramirez's Selena, Michelle's retroactive BFF. For another thing, Stifler is, unlike his comrades, an intentional cartoon, his arrested development and purposeful single-mindedness serving as both series avatar and a handy watermark for the ripening of the other characters. The by-product of that is there are only so many stories left to tell that plausibly incorporate Stifler into the narrative; I was just grateful to have no January Jones waiting in the wings this time out, threatening to sentimentalize him.
Indeed, the American Pie movies suffer a bit from Jack Sparrow Syndrome: A little Stifler goes a long way, but the sheer force of his persona has foregrounded him more and more with every sequel. Luckily, Seann William Scott hasn't calcified in his signature role to the extent that Johnny Depp has in his, and Stifler's increasing exasperation with his friends' waning tolerance for his Caligula Jr. shtick gives Scott a moderately fresh note to play. It helps, too, that Stifler is virtually inimitable in Scott's hands--oh, plenty have tried, including American Pie's own producers, who furnished Stifler with a Mini-Me in the second film and spun that character off into DVD purgatory. But it's the curious innocence Scott brings to the role that is, I believe, the key to its success, and it's this same quality that eludes counterfeiters. It's hard to take offense when Stifler exclaims "gross!" after emerging from between a heavyset woman's legs with a pubes-slicked face, because it's like he genuinely didn't expect it and, hey, he was open to the experience.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The American Pie aspect ratio reverts to 1.85:1 following the 'scope detour of American Wedding. Surprisingly, American Reunion was shot in 35mm, providing some measure of aesthetic consistency across the four films. Yet somehow, this $50M sequel looks significantly cheaper than the $11M original--at least at home, where dynamic range is inconsistent from shot to shot and often errs on the side of poor, with areas that should be deep black exhibiting grey crush. (The prologue offers a particularly egregious example of the problem.) The image has clearly been pushed to wrest maximum detail out of Ali Cobrin's dashboard-lit nude scene, which thankfully continues on in more incandescent environs--but the whole thing often feels like a failed experiment in incongruous documentary lighting. Skin tones come in two flavours--pink or orange--and the grain is pulpy, for lack of a better word. The 1080p Blu-ray presentation excels in a few close-ups and is likely an accurate representation of the D.I., so I chalk up my disappointment in this one to the filmmakers. An attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is generically perfect, reproducing a traditionally hemispheric comedy mix with ample volume and clarity. Reprised from the first film, James's "Laid" sounds very good in lossless audio.
Extras are numerous but featherweight. A batch of seven Deleted Scenes (8 mins., HD) reveals, among other things, slightly richer interactions with respect to the Oz/Heather pairing, a much bigger set-up for Stifler's career redemption via party-planning, and an energetic sex scene featuring a clothed but game Ramirez. With the exception of some heretofore-unseen titty, thirteen Extended Scenes (26 mins., HD) boast additional footage only the film's own editors could identify, while Alternate Scenes (4 mins., HD) is basically the American Pie equivalent of those "Line-o-rama" montages found on Judd Apatow DVDs. (They may be fashionable, but Apatow's improv techniques aren't necessarily compatible with this old-school comedy franchise.) Rounding out the cutting-room scraps is a "Gag Reel" (4 mins.) that's funny for a couple of reasons: Because it contains profane outtakes from the sanitized TV version, and because it has New England Patriots wide receiver Chad Johnson winkingly signing off with "This is American Reunion and one black guy."
"The Out-of-Control Track" ought to be rechristened "The Life's Too Short Track." It restarts the movie with Jason Biggs and Seann William Scott superimposed over one corner of the screen, promising to periodically walk the viewer through the movie or some such. They materialize again a few seconds later, Scott pretends to blow Biggs, and then nothing else happens for so long that I assume I was the victim of a practical joke. Next! Though your standard puff-piece making-of EPK bullshit, "The Reunion Reunion: Re-Launching the Series" (11 mins., HD) is notable for fans of apoplectic Chris Moore, who chats up the production with a canned, grinny zeal that will be familiar to viewers of "Project Greenlight". It's proceeded by six featurettes: "The Best of Biggs: Hangin' with Biggs" (4 mins., HD), a self-deprecating but weirdly hagiographic profile of the actor; "Lake Bake" (5 mins., HD), primarily a document of how humid it was at the beach the days they shot there but secondarily about Scott's embarrassment at having to utter the phrase "vagina shark" at age 34; "Dancing with Oz" (3 mins., HD), proof of Klein's newly-shredded physique and dedication to selling the hip-hop dance routine his character's required to perform; "American Gonad-iators: The Fight Scene" (4 mins., HD), in which we learn that Nicholas did his own big stunt during the mid-film comic rumble; "Jim's Dad" (3 mins., HD), wherein Levy poses for several period Polaroids given wisely-little screentime in the finished film; and "Ouch! My Balls!" (2 mins.), which demonstrates that sucker punches to the groin were a favourite pastime of the cast.
"American Reunion Yearbook" is an interactive Class of '99 yearbook complete with memory-refreshing clips from American Pie; points for restraint in not recycling Shannon Elizabeth's nude scene(s) for Nadia's videos. Last but not quite least is a feature-length audio commentary from Hurwitz and Schlossberg, who on the one hand don't narrate the movie but on the other overexplain their intentions in a way that feels at once patronizing and insecure. If you know your Toronto strip clubs, though, it's hard not to be amused by a tangent about the name of the in-film watering hole, Jilly's.
The Universal release, by the way, contains barely-distinguishable R-rated and unrated versions of the film on the same BD-50, as well as bonus DVD and Ultraviolet copies of the unrated edition. Self-refreshing trailers cue up on startup; turn off your wifi for faster loading.