Why the film American Pie will never be cancelled (2024)

American Pie was released 25 years ago tomorrow, making it officially at least seven years older than almost every character in it. Back in 1999, it was nothing less than a phenomenon. A 15-cert high-school sex comedy about four 18-year-olds who make a pact to lose their virginities before graduation, it was made for an even-then modest $11 million, raking in an astonishing $235 million at the box office.

These days, although I suspect fondly remembered by most, it tends to be spoken of with a dash of embarrassment, a pre-MeToo confection mentally roped off under “you couldn’t make it now”. (The fact that it spawned three markedly diminishing-returns sequels and a full five straight-do-DVD spin-offs probably hasn’t helped.) But a recent, immensely entertaining re-watch confirmed something I have long suspected about this film – written by Adam Herz (drawing largely on his own days at school in Michigan), and directed jointly by Paul Weitz and his Cambridge-educated younger brother, Chris. And it’s something that might surprise our modern moral gatekeepers.

True, neither the script’s original working title – Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made For Under $10 Million That Most Readers Will Probably Hate But I Think You Will Love – nor the films from which Herz apparently took inspiration (Porky’s, Bachelor Party) were exactly promising. But what emerged was something very different from its alleged predecessors.

Far from objectifying women or celebrating male roguishness (1981’s Porky’s was questionable then and is unwatchable now), American Pie took everyone off-guard by being a whip-smart, sweet-natured, beautifully written comedy of teenage manners in which decency is rewarded and its opposite punished: remorselessly, hilariously, but without a hint of preachiness or didacticism. Not only did it breathe fresh new life into an essentially moribund genre, it has also worn remarkably well.

The quartet at its centre are essentially likeable fellows. But they also have just one thing on their minds (as teenage boys do), which makes them almost entirely ridiculous (as teenage boys are) – until, crucially, they learn to treat the opposite sex not as some strange, one-dimensional “other”, but as their equal.

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For the uninitiated, they are: Jim (Jason Biggs), the engaging but painfully awkward chief protagonist, petrified around girls and mortified by the repeated efforts of his father (Schitt Creek’s drop-dead-fabulous Eugene Levy) to discuss the birds and the bees; Oz (Chris Klein) the handsome, co*cky jock; Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), the relatively “together” leader of the group; and the almost old-fogeyish Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas). Meanwhile, on the margins of the clique, there’s the exquisitely named Steve Stifler (an on-fire Seann William Scott), who’s the only non-virgin and a priceless incarnation of toxic masculinity decades before the term even existed. (Oz to him, on talking to girls: “You ask them questions, and listen to what they have to say.” Stifler, genuinely outraged: “I dunno, man – that sounds like a lot of work.”)

Their mostly reprehensible bids for carnal knowledge repeatedly and deservedly backfire: every time, it’s the boys who become the butt of the joke, the girls who emerge with the upper hand. By the end, too, you realise that a neat pattern has emerged: each of the four male leads’ situations have become completely reversed, their romantic and sexual expectations or situations turned inside-out.

It is out of pure, guess-she’ll-have-to-do desperation that Jim asks Alyson Hannigan’s – we think – gallumphingly dull and unworldly band-camp geek Michelle to the high-school Prom. But after it, just when all looks lost, comes the big twist. First, she makes his (and our) jaw drop by suddenly, faux-casually mentioning a recondite use she once made of her flute – and before long, she’s pouncing on him in bed like a praying mantis.

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Meanwhile, Oz, who has previously seen women as good for only one thing, winds up falling head over heels in love with Mena Suvari’s uncool but beautiful and headstrong Heather, even refusing – with a newfound, pact-busting honour – to tell his buddies whether they’ve “done it”. Kevin, hell-bent throughout on sleeping with his girlfriend Vicky (Tara Reid), falls for her, too, after they finally exchange virginities. But, although previously preoccupied with hearing the words “I love you” from him, it is she who then pragmatically dumps him, pointing out that they’re bound for different universities and that it’s never going to work: love isn’t all you need.

As for Finch and Stifler, their fates become intertwined, rewardingly so for the former, excruciatingly so for the latter – certainly, it’s no accident that the film reserves two of its most merciless punishments for the only member of the group who fails to better himself. The first – just in case you’re eating your breakfast – I’ll describe here only as pure, even hackneyed gross-out. But the second is a very different, far richer humiliation.

Towards the movie’s end, Finch – accidentally fulfilling a rumour he spread around school much earlier (yet another neat reversal of fortune) – is very willingly seduced by a much older woman (a career-defining turn from Jennifer Coolidge, later of The White Lotus fame) at the Prom after-party. Their immortal in flagrante exchange says it all. “Finch!” she sighs as they get down to it on her pool table. “Stifler’s mum!” he moans in reply. Cue Stifler himself later stumbling across them, entwined – and promptly passing out in horror.

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The scene that has deservedly gone down in cinema lore, and which gives the film its subtly iconoclastic title, is unsurpassed in mining male-teenage sexual wretchedness for laughs. It sees Jim – having questionably heard from Oz that “third base” feels “like warm apple pie” – spy no less a pastry in his family kitchen. Temptation proves too much: in a non-consensual seduction that swiftly rockets to base five, Jim has his way with the unfortunate pudding; and, inevitably, his father catches him in the act. In lesser hands, this episode could overall have proved plain icky or unpleasant. In fact, it is not only excruciatingly funny – though it certainly is that – but also, in the bumbling but ineffable goodwill of his father’s reaction, curiously sweet.

So, would “they” dare make American Pie in 2024? Somehow, I doubt it. Hollywood is surely far too censorious these days, audiences surely too pious – it would be tricky to greenlight, and a nightmare to market. But return to it now, and you may well conclude that, for from being some outmoded artefact from a less enlightened age, it’s actually closer to an evergreen if topsy-turvy manual for teenage gallantry – and one that might at the very least discourage mixing onanism and gastronomy. As Jim’s father gently, quizzically reminisces to his cold-sweating son, while the pie – which looks as if it’s been set upon with a pneumatic drill – glares reproachfully up at them from the kitchen table, “I never did it with baked goods...”

‘American Pie’ is on Amazon Prime until Friday

Why the film American Pie will never be cancelled (2024)


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