This 'American' Life: Pie, Hormones And The Endless Hunt For Happiness

Apr 5, 2012
Originally published on April 6, 2012 7:56 am

It was really too bad about the audio.

Our press screening of American Reunion here in Washington was saddled with a muted soundtrack, which is unfortunate for any movie, let alone one that revolves around '90s music, loud parties and a school dance. The audience laughed louder at "I love this song!" than at any of Eugene Levy's improv.

So my take on Reunion is necessarily incomplete. But since I still had the privilege of watching Seann William Scott relieve himself in a beer cooler, I think I got the gist of what the film has to offer, and what the series as a whole has become. The takeaway: Still funny, but now with a much bleaker outlook.

Forget about that pie for a minute. Gross-out gags were never the true hallmarks of the American movies. There's a bigger reason this demented franchise has endeared itself to a demented generation: emotional consistency. The Michiganders at its center grew up with the mindset that sex is the single most important thing in the world, and all that's happened over the course of four movies and 13 years has, for better or worse, adhered to that principle.

It sounds all fun and frivolous, and maybe it was back in 1999, when four teens were willing to do just about anything to lose their virginity — that scourge of high school. But those insecurities, and those hormones, burn just as strongly as ever in 2012.

As American Reunion opens, married-with-child protagonists Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) confront this darkly comic reality headlong. Each half of the couple, voracious bedroom appetites no longer satisfied by the other, has independently elected to go solo.

Whatever the opposite of a big chill is, that's what it feels like to attend East Great Falls High's 13-year reunion, which most of the time feels like it could have just as easily been a one-year reunion. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) and Oz (Chris Klein) are still hung up on high school flames (Tara Reid and Mena Suvari), while the supposedly worldly Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) throws up tales of derring-do to score with the girl who got hot (Dania Ramirez, new to the franchise).

Now that these guys and girls are in their 30s, with jobs and (in Jim and Michelle's case) a family, their constant quest for fulfillment has morphed from adolescent angst to hardened melancholy, and suddenly things are more Shame than Stifler. Live by the tube sock, die by the tube sock.

Should we have expected the cast to finally find release? Of course not. If they weren't still easily excitable, there'd be no point to the film. But the sands of time still shift for the Class of '99, just as they shift for the generation they represent. (Not my own; I'm holding out for Superbad Reunion). The fact that the characters feel so real to those who grew up watching them is both a blessing and a curse, because it makes all the gleeful immaturity glare in a peculiar way.

Consider that high school and college are usually our formative years, and with luck people generally emerge on the other side a little stronger and wiser. You aren't supposed to turn 30 acting like you just got home from prom. But the circumstances of the American franchise don't allow for natural maturation. The paradox is that in order to justify why we should still care about their lives, these people need to assure us they're all still as hopelessly horny as ever. A Jim who doesn't get caught pleasuring himself isn't really Jim at all.

It's not all frozen assets. Writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, the duo who gave the world Harold and Kumar, do make some valiant efforts to depict the shifting eras, as when a Stifler scheme falls apart due to the existence of cellphones. We're also aware we're dealing with different times because the filmmakers favor attractive yet dull new faces over gifted performers like Hannigan and Thomas. (And, nauseatingly, there are two separate sequences in which substance-addled girls throw themselves upon unwilling guys.) But mostly, the gang's-all-here spirit causes Reunion to do a sort of reverse moonwalk, looking backward while moving forward.

Make no mistake, it's a thrill to see everyone again. Yet our inclination after nine years is to also look for progress — and when redemption for the characters finally arrives, it feels static (and silent, too, but that wasn't their fault). It's kind of sad, in a way. To so many, these Americans stand for something grander than sex — and yet there was no way they could ever stand for anything but sex.

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