It’s fashionable in certain circles these days to decry Judd Apatow and his various comedy protégés as a bunch of overhyped, over-grown adolescents. American Reunion, the eighth entry in the American Pie franchise (four went straight to DVD), could make you rethink that opinion.
Next to this listless effort, Superbad and Bridesmaids look like the Shakespeare and Molière of R-rated comedy. Even The Hangover Part II suddenly seems a lot fresher. Though American Reunion writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg were responsible for the (also funnier) Harold and Kumar movies, they don’t seem to have figured out any new tricks to teach this material.
The American Pie saga began in 1999 as a classic American tale of lusty lads eager to shed their virginity before high school graduation. Sweet-faced, unstudly protagonist Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) eventually got hitched to band geek Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) in American Wedding. Now in their thirties and encumbered with spawn, the couple has graduated to incarnating a whole new set of clichés. Their sex life is dead, and when they return home for the titular high school reunion (their 13th, bizarrely), Jim finds himself gazing lasciviously at the teen (Ali Cobrin) whom he babysat when she was in rompers.
The problem is, male early-midlife-crisis humor has been done to death in comedies of the past few years, from Hall Pass to The Change-Up to The Hangover. So each member of the American Pie gang slips into a well-worn role: Jim is the nice guy who just needs to work out a few kinks in his marriage; Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is the whipped one seeking bro therapy; Oz (Chris Klein) is the playboy with a flashy but shallow lifestyle; and Stifler (Seann William Scott) is the extreme arrested-development case. What American Reunion needs is an actor daring and shameless enough to turn one of these stock roles into something unforgettable. But Scott, the least bland of the bunch, is still no Zach Galifianakis.
What the film does offer fans of the franchise is a nostalgia-soaked reunion of its original players (most of whom, it must be said, probably didn’t have other compelling screen commitments). The audience at my screening got an audible kick out of the appearance of Shannon Elizabeth and other near-forgotten millennial icons, and it responded happily to call-outs to gags from the first movie. Yes, the coming together of Jim’s dad (Eugene Levy), now widowed, and Stifler’s mom (Jennifer Coolidge), the original movie MILF, is a thing of beauty. But that’s only because “bland” is not in these two crusty comedians’ vocabulary.
The big set pieces in American Reunion don’t flow from character motivations; they’re ancient fixtures of the sex-farce genre. (The film gets major mileage out of the teenager’s attempts to coax and muscle Jim into adultery; would an 18-year-old Katy Perry look-alike really go all spring-break for this guy?) Each gag unfolds in a way determined by dozens of raunch fests before it.
But the whole point of comedy — as we understand it — is to break rules and defy expectations now and then. Maybe in the inevitable next episode, American Retirement, the incongruity between the actors’ lighthearted adolescent shenanigans and their chronological ages will finally be extreme enough to yield some absurdist laughs. Or maybe this installment is “Bye-bye,” at last.