By Tom Lanham
Updated July 16, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

American Pie, the profound and ennobling tale of four rabidly horny high school seniors who try to lose their virginity by prom night, looks, at a glance, like modern teen-movie repackaging of a very low and cynical order — that is, it appears to be a revival of the drooling slapstick raunchiness of Porky‘s, the low-budget 1982 hit that was essentially a dumbed-down, fleshed-out Animal House. In one of the many scenes that young moviegoers will surely be snickering about all summer, Jim (Jason Biggs), a hapless putz who looks like a junior David Schwimmer, watches via an Internet video hookup as the Eastern European exchange student (Shannon Elizabeth) he has invited over for a ”study session” lies naked on his bed and proceeds to pleasure herself to a skin magazine.

The scene is pure (or should I say impure) hormone-soaked farce. The girl, who in the ’60s would have been a Norwegian stewardess, takes off her top to reveal a pair of extremely enhanced-looking torpedoes. Nevertheless, when Jim pops into the room, this porno-foldout bunny surprises him, and the audience, by taking control. She orders him to strip, too, and then she makes him dance. He does, in a series of spectacularly grotesque gyrations. In that moment, he becomes the very thing he was pining for — a piece of meat on display — and it was then, when the movie had shot past pseudo-exploitation and into the comedy of sexual role reversal, that I began to laugh.

Most of the current crop of teen hits, like She’s All That or Never Been Kissed, have, in essence, been John Hughes nostalgia vehicles, complete with jocks, nerds, princesses, and makeovers. American Pie doesn’t have very memorable characters (many of the actors look bland enough to star in a sitcom based on the movie), but it does have a new spirit, a frank yet sweet-souled randiness. It’s pitched to the first generation of male and female adolescents who have been taught, from birth (mostly by MTV), to act as sex objects for each other, and that’s one reason that girls, I think, will flock to this movie as readily as boys. For them, it can represent a novel form of voyeurism: an amiable peep-show glimpse into the outrageousness of the male mind. Even the exuberantly smutty sequence in which Jim uses a home-baked apple pie as a substitute for what he’s craving is like a pop encapsulation of the most famous scene in Portnoy’s Complaint.

Instead of launching a laborious scheme to get laid, the heroes fumble in awkward, funny, sometimes touching ways. Chris Klein, so winning as the inarticulate jock candidate in Election, here plays a lacrosse star who joins the choir to win the attentions of a square-peg babe (Mena Suvari). Yes, he’s learning to ”work the sensitive angle,” but as the film portrays it, he’s also caught between worlds. Jim is merely caught in his masturbatory fantasies; he endures hilariously mechanical lectures on auto-stimulation from his ’50s-style dad (Eugene Levy) and then gets lured into that Internet broad- cast, which results in the entire school seeing his cup runneth over (twice). The bow-tied Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) has, quite literally, the biggest reputation around, but beneath his quizzical demeanor he’s so preoccupied with an even lower bodily function that he’s barely in the game.

Like most good teen comedies that never quite transcend their B-movie roots (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Valley Girl), American Pie is a lively, disposable hybrid of the sincere and the synthetic. The film’s stray gross-out gags feel as if they were slapped together in the wake of There’s Something About Mary (a nasty spiked beer sits just waiting to be sipped), and some of the more charming characters are pure cartoon-ville, like the nerd (the scene-stealing Alyson Hannigan) who can’t talk about anything but band camp yet turns out to be even lustier than her prom date. It reflects a major shift in contemporary teen culture that the girls in American Pie are as hip to sex as the boys. One of them, played by the acerbic Natasha Lyonne, who’s like a naughtier Chelsea Clinton, is actually too experienced to exist within her school circle. She’s waiting for everyone else to catch up. Sexually speaking, playing catch-up is what being a teenager is all about, and movies like American Pie are, by now, an essential part of the ritual. B

American Pie

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