I remember quite clearly the day in 1999 when I went to see American Pie. It was not a good day, really. In fact, it was one of those days where you feel like everything’s going to hell around you. But a job’s a job, so I hopped in my car and headed to the showing. Two hours later, I felt better. The movie was so funny that it lifted my spirits. Not even a projector problem that ended up robbing the audience of about two minutes could ruin the fun. And that’s the way American Pie was; it was infectiously fun. Just as distinctly, I remember the day in August of 2001 when I saw American Pie 2. It was a much better day by every stretch of the imagination, but the movie didn’t win me over. The sequel seemed like a stale retread of the original, with half the characters relegated to the sidelines. I was disappointed. As weird as this may sound, I wondered if there was some reverse correlation between the kind of day I was having and my opinion of the American Pie movies. However, I can definitively say that the day I saw the second sequel, American Wedding, was a good day and I liked the movie.
Jason Biggs returns as Jim, the dorky-but-likable guy who has a knack for getting himself into the kind of predicaments that only Larry Flynt (or screenwriter Adam Herz) could imagine. When we last saw Jim, he was declaring his love to “band geek” Michelle (Alyson Hannigan). As this new picture opens, he intends to pop the question during dinner at a fancy restaurant. Of course, that’s not all that happens. Not in this series. Jim ends up the recipient of a mistimed sexual act that, naturally, leads to great public humiliation and shame. Despite the scene he creates, Jim does ask for Michelle’s hand in marriage, and she accepts.
Along with their parents (including the great Eugene Levy and Fred Willard as the fathers), they begin the process of planning the event. Good friends Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) lend a hand. They also make a good suggestion: don’t invite the obnoxious Stifler (Seann William Scott). Despite this pact, Stifler finds out about the wedding and invites himself, plus he demands to throw the bachelor party. Knowing that he’ll make it a bachelor party Charlie Sheen would be proud of, they agree to let him do his thing. Further complications arise when Michelle’s sister Cadence (January Jones) arrives. In one of the movie’s most clever bits, Stifler pretends to be an innocent preppy to woo her, while the straight-laced Finch pretends to be a boorish prig.
All three American Pie movies rely on outrageous humor involving sex, bodily fluids, and other scatological things. This one is no different, except that the punchlines aren’t as obvious as they were in the second film. For this kind of thing to work, you need to be taken by surprise, which this movie does more often than not. There’s a specific type of scene that I love watching in gross-out comedies. I’m talking about any scene that makes the audience gag and laugh simultaneously. Maybe it’s that part of me that loves John Waters movies as well. In any event, American Wedding has one such scene – involving a dog dropping masquerading as a piece of chocolate fudge – that really sent the audience in my theater over the edge. There was a loud groan of disgust, followed by uncontrollable laughter. You gotta love that kind of reaction because it truly is a shared moment.
Another rowdy scene is Stifler’s bachelor party, which is a model of comic invention. Each of these three movies has had a lengthy comic set piece in the middle. In American Pie, it was the 11-minute scene in which Jim broadcasts his sexual misadventures with Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) over the internet. Very funny. In American Pie 2, it was the sequence where the guys encounter two lesbians while house painting. Strained, not that funny. For this movie, all the stops have been pulled out. The scene begins quietly, with the arrival of one stripper dressed as a maid and another dressed as a cop. An unsuspecting Jim walks though the door with Michelle’s parents in tow. Stifler and the guys have to hide what’s really taking place, despite some rather damning evidence in full view. This long stretch of the film just keeps upping the level of insanity. That’s the mark of a skillful comedy; the ability to continually build on a single joke is hard to do but hilarious when done well.
Despite the outrageous humor, this series hits a chord because there’s an underlying sweetness to the material. We genuinely do like these characters and – more importantly – they really do like each other. There has always been something touching about the relationship Jim has with his ever-understanding father, and it’s clear that Jim and Michelle really love each other too. This is what separates the best gross-out comedies from the worst: there has to be a human element or else it’s all just body fluids.
When I reviewed American Pie 2, I complained loudly that many of the characters were barely in the film. I wrote: “Watching this movie is like going to a party where only half you’re friends have been invited.” Despite the absence of characters played by Chris Klein, Tara Reid, Mena Suvari, Shannon Elizabeth, and Natasha Lyonne, I wasn’t bothered by the half-cast this time. Probably that’s because the movie further develops the characters who are present. This is particularly true of Stifler, who is perhaps at his most obnoxious (and therefore most lovable) here. Seann William Scott possesses that rare ability to make people like his character even when he’s unconscionably crude, lewd, and rude. (Jay & Silent Bob’s Jason Mewes is another of the few who can do this.) Stifler is a great comedy creation, well played by a very good actor.
American Wedding is well acted and sharply written. Why is it an improvement over the other sequel? Because it takes the characters we have come to know and love and it plugs them into an original situation. Do I want to see how Stifler organizes a bachelor party? Hell, yeah! Do I want to see Michelle have a heart-to-heart talk with Jim’s dad about martial sex? Absolutely! Do I want to see Jim suffer embarrassment during all the things that go into planning a wedding? You bet! (The movie missed a great joke, though: someone should have warned Jim not to have sex with the wedding cake.) The wedding provides lots of scenarios for these characters to get entangled in. Watching them do it makes American Wedding as fresh as it is funny.
( out of four)
American Wedding is rated R for sexual content, language and crude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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