Sunday, April 8, 2012

American Reunion: Diminishing returns

American Reunion (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, for relentless crude and sexual content, profanity, nudity, brief drug use and teen drinking 
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.6.12

High school reunions, in great part trading on nostalgia, promise much but inevitably disappoint.

Everybody wants things to be the same, sort of ... and they are, sort of, which is the problem. The bad memories are amplified; the good memories are impossible to recapture in precisely the same way. Life is fresh only the first time; although the thought of going home again is irresistible, it’s like visiting a paler shadow of what we enjoyed so much, back in the day.

Wanting to help his father (Eugene Levy, center) out of a depressed funk, Jim
(Jason Biggs, left) unwisely brings him to a pre-reunion bash thrown by Stifler
(Seann William Scott). Unwise, that is, because Stifler decides that Jim's Dad
can best appreciate the party after half a dozen stiff shots.
And so it is with late-entry movie sequels. American Reunion, 13 years removed from the mixed delights of 1999’s American Pie, carries the strong whiff of wistful yearning; it’s also infected with the less savory smells of the raunch demanded by its script template.

It’s nice to see the entire gang again, particular after several key characters were left behind in 2003’s American Wedding. And, to their credit, the writing/directing team of Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg — veterans of the Harold & Kumar series — occasionally interrupt the obligatory vulgarity for plot sidebars involving genuine feelings, in an effort to reproduce the blend of sweet and sour that made scripter Adam Herz’s 1999 original fitfully charming (usually despite itself).

Unfortunately, the brand has been sullied during the past decade, thanks to a jaw-dropping series of direct-to-video “sorta-sequels” such as American Pie Presents Band Camp, American Pie Presents the Naked Mile and American Pie Presents Beta House (and I probably missed one or two others). Long on explicit tastelessness and short on anything else, these stiffs may have set up expectations — in the wrong direction — that this newest, true series sequel can’t fulfill.

Best buds Jim (Jason Biggs), Oz (Chris Klein), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), each mildly — or greatly — dissatisfied with the direction life has taken, enthusiastically anticipate their upcoming 13th reunion at East Great Falls High School. It’ll be a chance to visit the ol’ town and enjoy some quality bonding time.

Jim and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), thanks to the demands of a cute 2-year-old son, suffer the malaise of all first-time parents: Shared intimacy has become a thing of the past, replaced instead by individual efforts at self-satisfaction (depicted in unnecessary detail, of course).

Kevin is married as well, in a vaguely defined, submissive way to Ellie (Charlene Amoia): a plot element that never goes anywhere. Oz, trying to breathe fresh life into an acting career tarnished by a guest appearance on Celebrity Dance-Off, is trapped in a Hollywood-style relationship with Mia (Katrina Bowden), an oversexed sybarite who probably cheats on him three times a week.

Ellie and Mia are newcomers to this franchise, inserted to generate melodramatic tension when this gathering reunites Kevin and Oz with, respectively, Vicky (Tara Reid) and Heather (Mena Suvari). Vicky arrives as a singleton; Heather comes accompanied by condescending boyfriend “Dr. Ron” (Jay Harrington), a heart surgeon who clearly lacks that organ himself.

Finch, always the most mysterious of the bunch, roars up on a sleek motorcycle, bearing tales of having toured the world. His dry sophistication catches the attention of Selena (Dania Ramirez), once merely one of Michelle’s geeky band camp comrades, and now all growed up into a sexy barmaid.

That leaves Stifler (Seann William Scott), still trying to live up to the image of his arrested adolescent younger self, and trapped in a ghastly temp job at a corporate-style office run by a tyrannical boss (Vik Sahay, easily recognized from TV’s Chuck). Stifler, far more than everybody else, hopes to cut loose during this extended weekend.

Trouble is, the other guys — recalling full well how often Stifler’s earlier pranks went awry in all sorts of horrible ways — are reluctant to renew this alliance. Indeed, they’re hoping not to see Stifler, having made a point of excluding him during all preparations.

Fate has other plans, which gives the storyline a chance to discuss the importance of true friendship: one of the gentler subplots. Another tender interlude concerns Jim’s Dad (Eugene Levy), still grieving the (between films) loss of his wife. The father-son “bonding talks” between Levy and Biggs have remained a high point throughout this series: a perfect blend of awkward sincerity and hilariously inappropriate candor. TMI, indeed ... and always very, very funny.

Now, though, Jim’s Dad has become trapped in his own home, giving Jim an opportunity to return the favor. This inevitably leads to Dad’s presence at one of Stifler’s infamous parties, a sequence that Levy enjoys to the hilt (as do we).

But enough of the sedate stuff, right? The gleefully charged, flesh-baring set-pieces hit several high points, none better than the eternally flustered Jim’s efforts to fend off the advances of Kara (Ali Cobrin), the girl next door he used to babysit, when she was just a kid.

Now she has blossomed into a just-turned-18 hottie consumed by lust and a desire for Jim to deflower her ... and what’s a guy to do? The right thing, of course, but that’s not easy when the chick is naked and in a semiconscious alcoholic haze; Jim’s efforts to sneak Kara back into her bedroom, without being seen by her parents or by his wife — and with Stifler inserting snarky asides as a sort of vulgar Greek chorus — are simply hilarious.

On the negative side, Scott’s butt-baring moment, as Stifler obtains revenge against the new crop of teenage hooligans by doing something unmentionable in their beer cooler, is far less satisfying: catering solely to the level of crudity that has become de rigueur in raunch comedies. Nor is that the only debased act Stifler commits; he uncorks another doozie during the aforementioned party.

At which point, my Constant Companion turned to me and whispered, “I think I’m too young for this stuff.”

True, that. Movies of this ilk deliberately embrace the challenge of offending mainstream viewers; doing so is something of a badge of honor. Bear that in mind.

As has been true throughout this series, Biggs deserves credit for continued fearlessness. He’ll do anything for the sake of a laugh, whether Jim dons a leather domination outfit or finds himself trapped in a kitchen, naked from the waist down, trying to conceal his dangly bits from both Michelle and Selena. (Hint: Never try to hide said condition by grabbing a pot lid made of clear glass.)

Scott’s Stifler, as always, is a hoot. Everything he says and does ranges from rude to grotesque, but there’s no denying the unapologetic energy with which each line is delivered. Just as Stifler is the life of any party, Scott is this film’s cheerfully vulgar and demented heart.

With so many characters at hand, it’s difficult to honor each with sufficient screen time or narrative significance. Hurwitz and Schlossberg do a good job with Jim, Michelle, Jim’s Dad, Stifler and Oz. Finch and Selena come in a close second, and that’s about it. Suvari never gets a good grip on Heather’s emotional arc; her character is overwhelmed by Bowden’s flamboyant Mia.

Nicholas and Reid fare the worst; the complicated triangle concerning Kevin, his wife and Vicky never goes anywhere, and all three actors just sort of flail about, to no purpose.

Natasha Lyonne’s Jessica makes an eleventh-hour cameo, and of course Jennifer Coolidge returns as Stifler’s Mom. John Cho (Harold, absent Kumar) gets an expanded role as the suddenly more articulate half of the vulgar cheering section from earlier films, and Neil Patrick Harris pops up as the Celebrity Dance-Off host. And of course Shannon Elizabeth returns, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her cameo as Nadia, the (former) foreign exchange student.

So yes, it’s fun to see all these familiar faces — perhaps taking note of those who’ve carved out respectable careers (Biggs, Hannigan and Scott) — but the rest is, well, neither fresh nor profound. (Humor involving excrement has a rather short shelf-life.) As with actual high school reunions, greeting those who show up is 90 percent of the allure; after introductions, everything sorta ... just ... drifts.

As is the case with this film.

1 comment:

  1. I had a fine amount of fun to this whole film because I love all of the characters from this series and know what to expect from any of these movies. It isn't hilarious the whole time throughout and definitely doesn't do anything new or original with its premise or jokes, but when the jokes hit, they hit hard and work. Nice review Derrick.