Review: ‘American Reunion’ offers predictable laughs and familiar faces

The “American Pie” films are an unlikely franchise, and I’m surprised to actually see us reach this place with it 13 years down the road, a moment when “American Reunion” actually earns some emotional resonance because of the real passage of time it signifies.

The first film in the series was a charming little teen sex comedy, distinguished by an eager puppy-dog glee about how dirty it was.  It was to “Porky’s” what “Scream” was to “Halloween,” an introduction to one of the mainstay genres of the ’80s, dressed up and freshly scrubbed.  The young cast was appealing, well-chosen, and they embraced the material whole-heartedly.  In addition, the adult cast like Jennifer Coolidge and Eugene Levy were such exceptionally smart and funny performers that they helped set a tone that the younger cast absolutely embraced.

“American Pie 2” was a case of sequelitis writ large, a shoddy follow-up that really couldn’t figure out what story it needed to tell to justify its existence.  It’s not a bad film empirically. With “American Wedding,” it became apparent that they were using the films to look at the various benchmarks in the lives of the characters, and there’s something about that which invites the audience that fell in love with the first one to compare their own lives, their own benchmarks.  It creates an investment, and this new film absolutely plays on that.

It’s interesting that Adam Herz isn’t the writer here, because the script by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who also directed the film, is very aware of the structure of an “American Pie” film and the characters and how they should behave.  Herz has been an important part of this entire series, and more than anything, this film feels like a professional-level fan film made by people who really, REALLY like what Herz did.  There’s no innovation on display here, and why would there be?  The point is that this is a return to something familiar, and it is exactly as comforting in its predictability as it’s supposed to be.

As with every “American Pie” film, there is honesty at the core of much of what they play as funny, but exaggerated greatly.  Every one of the films manages to cross the line at least once, but they’re also grounded in a blatant sentimentality that somehow excuses whatever transgressions they make.  This film mines the same sort of material as the others, with masturbation, MILFs, bodily functions, and inopportune boners a-plenty, and there are some laughs there.  By shaking off the legacy of the four (yes, I was shocked, too) direct-to-video sequels that also exist, by bringing back everyone from the first film (man, it’s good to see Natasha Lyonne upright and healthy), this film feels like a successful wrap-up to the series.

The MVP this time?  Eugene Levy, by far.  Levy’s such a good actor, such a wide-open and honest performer, that when he does his scenes about Jim’s mother, who has passed away now, he takes a fairly conventional beat and makes it feel very raw and heartfelt and emotional.  Levy was the one guy who tied all of the films, even the DTV ones, into the same world, and for the most part, they’ve just had him doing the same thing every time.  Here, finally, there’s a little bit of evolution to his character, and giving him Jennifer Coolidge to play off of is just plain smart management of resources.

The film makes good use of the new cast members, getting maximum eye candy mileage from Dania Ramirez, Katrina Bowden, and Ali Cobrin, while also making sure to let Seann William Scott and Eddie Kaye Thomas and Jason Biggs do what they do.  Chris Klein is given a very earnest storyline with Mena Suvari, and it’s like watching the Zeppo story from a Marx Brothers movie.  Thomas Ian Nicholas is equally earnest in his storyline, and I am reminded why there haven’t been a whole lot of movies with Thomas Ian Nicholas in the leading role.  By far, the most material belongs to Jason Biggs, and he’s just as confident as ever in how he handles whatever is asked of him.

The movie’s soundtrack is made up largely of songs from the earlier movies, and it’s forgettable sonic wallpaper, the exact sort of stuff that made me stop listening to the radio.  Tech credits across the board are fine, but it’s not especially sharp.  It subscribes to that “if it’s funny, it’s fine” philosophy, and it’s entirely okay, bright and colorful if nothing else.  In the end, your overall enthusiasm about this one will be determined largely based on how significant the first one was to you.  If you loved that movie and it reminds you of your friends and a particular time in your life, you’ll probably get hooked by the built-in nostalgia that the film is designed to evoke.  If not, it’s a decent but uneven comedy and seems acceptable enough, if not particularly compelling.  “Just fine” may not seem like praise, but considering I’m not sure anyone ever really imagined they’d get a whole franchise out of “American Pie,” that may be a best-case scenario.

“American Reunion” opens everywhere on Friday.