American Pie Review

by James Sanford (jamessanford AT earthlink DOT net)
July 24th, 1999

In the interest of full disclosure, I must preface my review of "American Pie" by noting that I am a graduate of Forest Hills Central in suburban Grand Rapids. That's the arch-rival school of East Grand Rapids High, the alma mater of "Pie" author Adam Herz. As a transfer student, however, I always thought the animosity between the two camps was based entirely on jealousy. The only differences between FHC and EGR were FHC kids lived in smaller homes, drove cheaper cars and spent a lot more time acting like snobs than the East Grand Rapidians I knew.
    Now EGR alumni have something else they can hold over FHC: They're pretty funny. Despite its crass ad campaign and sleazy-sounding subject matter, "Pie" turns out to be a generally amusing, somewhat honest picture of the pressures put upon kids to become sexually active. Despite a few gross-out gags and a corny wish-fulfillment finale, "Pie" is closer to a "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" than it is to the infamous "Porky's" trilogy.
    What separates Herz's story from most films of this kind is its depiction of young women, most of whom have some semblence of intelligence and one of whom -- Jessica, warmly played by Natasha Lyonne ("Slums of Beverly Hills") -- is quietly fascinating in the way she shares her hard-won wisdom with both her male and female friends. The general rule in most of the adolescent sex comedies of the 1980s was to objectify women as much as possible, preferrably by turning them into strippers, hookers or frosty virgins. Herz isn't interested in playing that game, and his movie is all the better for it.
That's not to say that it breaks a lot of ground in other areas. Although the jockish Oz (Chris Klein) eventually discovers he has a heart, his buddies are mostly hormonally driven buffoons who would rather die than face the prospect of going to college without a whit of carnal knowledge. Finch (Eddie Kay Thomas) has an undeserved reputation as a world-class Casanova, Jim (Jason Biggs) has already humiliated himself via the Internet and Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) can't get past "third base" with his girlfriend Vicky (Tara Reid).
    Though most of "Pie" consists of the quartet trying to get some action before graduation, the movie also manages to touch on a lot of little truths along the way, particularly when it focuses on the communication gap between the sexes. Kevin and Vicky in particular have all the classic "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" problems and Jessica sometimes seems to function as a translator, interpreting manspeak into womanspeak and vice versa.
    The most unusual aspect of "Pie"'s male characters is their desire to please their partners instead of just scoring. Most of them come to the realization that a woman's feelings ultimately figure into the sexual equation, something no one ever gave a second thought to in the "Porky's" era.
    But lest you think "Pie" is a thoughtful meditation on young love, it also dishes out plenty of jokes, some of them predictable (such as the hot-to-trot exchange student) and some of them so outrageous you may laugh in spite of yourself (the "pale ale," for example, and an encounter with an apple pie one can only hope was deep-dish). Those who know East Grand Rapids -- renamed East Grand Falls here -- will also enjoy the movie's allusions to the city, including a hang-out that looks suspiciously like Eastown's renowned Yesterdog and a Trailblazers logo prominently featured in the school.
The only downside of "Pie" is that its probable success at the box office will almost certainly bring on a wave of shoddy imitations, much as "Porky's" did in the mid-1980s. For those of us who survived "The Last American Virgin," "School Spirit" and the unforgettable "Zapped!", the prospect of another wave of such junk is about as appealing as guzzling a cup of "pale ale."

James Sanford

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