Warmed Over, by David Bax
When American Pie came out in 1999, it was a shaggy dog comedy with a cast of unknowns that had an impact we can still recognize today. Whether its occasionally quite broad humor worked for you, its mixture of sensitive-kid sweetness and outré horn-dog set-pieces laid the foundation for many of the comedies we’ve seen since. As a member of its target audience (I graduated high school in 2000), I can also attest that it felt surprisingly of the moment for a studio film about teenagers, in an unassuming, non-condescending way that I am sure accounts for the lion’s share of its popularity and longevity among me and my peers. It’s exactly that casual presence at the forefront of the zeitgeist that is conspicuously, embarrassingly absent from American Reunion, the fourth film in the franchise.
No acrobatics are really required to get the film’s core players (as well as practically everyone else who appeared in the first one) back together. It’s a high school reunion over a holiday weekend. So I’m sure you’re thinking, as I was, that this film takes place in 2009. Alas, no, they’re attending a thirteen year reunion, an anomaly that is neither satisfying explained nor used for any comedic purposes whatsoever.
Our main characters are all grown-ups with jobs now. Some of them are married. Our lead, Jim (Jason Biggs) even has a kid now. Where American Pie was about the awkwardness of burgeoning masculinity among a post-machismo generation of sheltered suburban white kids, American Reunion examines the well-tread topic of the castration of adult normalcy. Everyone from John Cassavetes to Billy Crystal has had a crack at this subject matter and its hoariness is largely unavoidable. Perhaps the makers of this film felt that an extra R-rated dose of comedic vulgarity would set them apart but the shadow of 2009’s The Hangover extends too long. That film asserted that beneath the khaki exterior of every middle class adult male lies an id-fueled beast and it had the nerve to back that assertion up with hilarious misanthropy and cathartically destructive impulses.
What’s supposed to set the characters in the American franchise apart is that they will always be ultimately good people, Jim in particular. They are the Ed Helms character (to continue the Hangover comparison) except that they are right to be nice and mild-mannered and things will work out for them and they will marry the right people. American Reunion wants to insist that Jim remains this bastion of benevolence and reliability but the onscreen evidence speaks to the contrary. Jim and his wife, Michelle (Alyson Hannigan, returning), have been experiencing an alarming dearth of sexual activity since the birth of their son. Jim then spends the weekend ignoring her in favor of his old buddies and – much more concerning – completely neglecting his young child. This is meant to be Michelle’s reunion weekend too but Jim, at every point, leaves her at home with the kid, never once asking after the boy’s welfare upon returning or really showing any interest in him whatsoever. Still, the film does not seem to understand how awful this behavior is and plows forward, assuming we’re still blindly on his side. It’s hard to be when he acts like such a tool. Things reach a teeth-grinding low point when we’re treated to one of those sweaty, forced farce, Meet the Parent-style situations that could be easily remedied by a very simple moment of straightforward honesty. A drunk, eighteen year old, naked girl comes onto Jim and he behaves as if he’s the one who’s done something wrong. What follows is a wholly unnecessary sequence that seems to go on for half an hour (honestly, this film feels like it’s close to three hours long) that could have been avoided if Jim simply asked for his wife’s help. The Michelle we’ve come to know from past films is not the jealous, judgmental type.
For what it’s worth, there are other characters that hold glimpses of the more honest continuation of the narrative that this film could have been. Unfortunately, these all take a backseat to Jim’s antics. Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) in particular has the most interesting storyline, in that details of his life since the last film are teased out slowly over the course of the proceedings. Sadly, there’s very little time devoted to it. And if you particularly enjoyed, as I did, the way American Pie depicted sexually confident females, you’ll be deflated to find the women (Hannigan as well as Mena Suvari, Tara Reid and Natasha Lyonne) relegated to perfunctory romantic interest roles. I was reminded of Leslie Mann’s character in last year’s The Change-Up, which is never a good thing.
Biggs and Seann William Scott are executive producers this time around and it makes sense that Scott would need that carrot to return to a franchise that he’s frankly outgrown. He remains, as usual, the best part of the film. His Stifler is a better character than this movie deserves, champing at the bit to remain immature and vigorously horny while ever on the brink of accepting his own immense sadness. He and some of the supporting cast, including Lyonne (relegated to a bit part) and the always reliable John Cho, are the only signs of life. And Biggs, with more than a decade’s experience since the first film, should be ashamed of how amateurish he remains in his scenes with Eugene Levy.
This film is, overall, not funny. Being a comedy, that is certainly its most notable crime but not its biggest one. In an attempt to give the audience what they thought they wanted from this franchise, American Reunion fails to remain true to the world in which it takes place and the characters who inhabit it. That’s what takes it from being a bad film to being a complete waste of time.