Whenever I think of the American Pie movies, I also think of the Scream movies. Both were hip '90s-era celebrations of beloved disposable '80s genres that wore their stupidity as a badge of honor. But as these franchises have gone deep into sequel territory, they’ve been scrubbed clean of what made them interesting in the first place: The self-aware, devil-may-care quality of the knowing throwback has been replaced by the workaday number-painting of the dutiful knockoff. Witness American Reunion, the fourth installment in the Pie series -- if you count the, erm, canonical theatrical releases and not the four straight-to-video spinoffs like American Pie Presents: Band Camp. The new film gathers up enough energy to pull together a couple of funny (if rote) setpieces but falls apart amid a mess of all-too-earnest clichés about our beloved horndog characters learning to deal with life’s disappointments.
And just about all of them are back for this thirteenth high school reunion (don’t ask), though their stardom has developed in asymmetrical ways. Jim (Jason Biggs, whom you will likely remember) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan, now probably best known for How I Met Your Mother) he of the everymannish sexual humiliation scenarios and she of the experimental nerdy perversions, now have a two-year-old and a faltering sex life; Oz (Chris Klein, whom you may remember) is now a frustrated sports commentator famous for a stint on a celebrity dance show and dating a young, shallow starlet; Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas, whom I seriously do not remember) is married and fathoms deep into a life of housework and reality TV; Heather (Mena Suvari…seriously, let’s not do this) is dating a heart surgeon but still pines for Oz.
The real attraction here, though, is Stifler (Seann William Scott, currently in theaters in the far better hockey-beatdown comedy Goon), whose part as the meathead comic relief in the original film has blossomed into this new one’s lead and, oddly, its moral arena. He lives with his mom, he has a thankless job as a temp at a financial firm, and he uses the thirteenth reunion as an excuse to relive what were the glory days of high school. Regard the priceless expression on his face when he walks into his own blowout party and realizes that his former classmates have turned it into a dignified affair with smooth, jazzy background music.
As a teen comedy, American Pie could get away with some quick, empty life lessons to round out the raunchiness. Here, because these are now grown-ups, American Reunion spends a rather surprising amount of time trying to teach its characters about adulthood. But don’t mistake screen time for depth; the film still can’t exactly commit too much to any of it. Yes, Jim and Michelle will find a way to get their mojo back; yes, Oz and Heather will find a way to be with each other; yes, Stifler will find a way to keep the party going while Learning Something About Moving On™. It’s all Third Act Resolutions 101, and it gets in the way of the gags, such as they are.
Honestly, the most touching thing about American Reunion is just what’s happened to these actors along the way. As young, relatively fresh faces, they had a kind of vivaciousness that made up for any shortcomings they may have had as performers. Over the years, they’ve developed in different ways. Biggs is still pretty good doing his hey-somebody-caught-me-jerking-off shtick, but he hasn’t gained any additional depth. Scott has added some odd, Jim Carrey-ish exaggerations to his repertoire, but he’s now at his best when he has to express a kind of bewildered frustration. Meanwhile, Chris Klein appears to have traded in his wide-eyed, comic earnestness (used to such great effect in the first film and by Alexander Payne in Election) for an embittered, unconvincing stiffness. You watch these actors and you realize, for better and for worse, that they no longer exist on the same playing field. The movie is its own teachable moment.