"American Pie" is the darndest thing. Both warmhearted and foul-mouthed, this unlooked-for hybrid of "South Park" and Andy Hardy uses its surface crudeness as sucker bait to entice teenage audiences into the tent to see a movie that is as sweet and sincere at heart as anything Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland ever experienced.
As a card-carrying contemporary youth comedy, "American Pie" does have its gross-out credentials in what you might call apple pie order. Front and center are jokes about voyeurism, diarrhea, premature ejaculation, the drinking of beer with a semen chaser and, in the film's signature moment, masturbation with one of those homemade pies.
It all sounds as vulgar as the tolerant MPAA allows, but to see "American Pie" is to know that all this foolishness is only window-dressing for a film that at its core is surprisingly innocent and good-natured and even finds the time to promote decent values. If America's teenagers have a biological need to sneak into crass R-rated movies, and apparently they do, this is the one parents not only can feel safest about but might even enjoy themselves.
"American Pie" is the feature debut for screenwriter Adam Herz, who apparently used his own not-that-distant school years at Michigan's East Grand Rapids High as inspiration. Paul and Chris Weitz, the director and co-producer, respectively, collaborated on the writing of both "Antz" and "Madeline," and while that latter film's nuns might need a stretcher after exposure to some of the humor here, they'd find a lot to like as well.
For one thing, this has got to be one of the least mean-spirited of recent American comedies. Cast from top to bottom with extraordinarily likable young actors who we instinctively want to be happy, "American Pie" also benefits from screenwriter Herz's clever plotting and his exact sense of what is due to each character, even the most hostile and profane.
More than that, "American Pie" is unusual in its ability to mix bodily functions humor with a sincere and unlooked-for sense of decency. Though its characters obsess endlessly about sex, even to the point of wondering if Ariel in "Little Mermaid" would be an appropriate partner, the film finally comes down emphatically in favor of treating people with consideration and acting from the heart as the keys to happiness.
"American Pie" opens with the sounds of a woman moaning in sexual ecstasy in a teenager's room, but it's not a real woman, it's a scrambled broadcast on an adult channel, which is as close to actual sexual experience as Jim (Jason Biggs) and his friends have had, endless talk and fantasizing notwithstanding.
Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) does have a steady girlfriend, the beautiful Vicky (Tara Reid), but they've yet to find the perfect moment to go all the way. Totally without female companionship are Chris "Oz" Ostreicher ("Election's" marvelous Chris Klein), who devotes his life to lacrosse, and the dry, intellectual Finch (Eddie Kay Thomas), who enjoys using Latin to make jokes about the dog eating his homework.
Clustering around this core group are other archetypal high school characters. On the hip side are the crude party animal Stifler (Seann W. Scott), who calls his house "Stifler's Palace of Love," and the wise, sexually experienced Jessica (Natasha Lyonne of "Slums of Beverly Hills"). Further down the pecking order are braces-wearing Sherman (Chris Owens), a.k.a. "the Sherminator, a sophisticated sex robot sent back through time," and Michelle (a delightful Alyson Hannigan), a flute player who thinks of nothing but band, band, band.
Fearful of, God forbid, graduating high school as virgins, Jim, Kevin, Oz and Finch make the pact that drives "American Pie's" plot: They will motivate and support one another so that, by prom night, exactly three weeks away, they will no longer be sexual novices. "We will become," Kevin proclaims in a mock-passionate speech, "masters of our sexual destiny."
This vow, not surprisingly, becomes the basis for numerous moments of embarrassment and mortification; if there is a wrong or awkward thing to be said or done, one of these guys will say or do it. The most intriguing scenarios involve Oz, who meets the beautiful Heather (Mena Suvari) when he expands his sensitive side and tries out for jazz chorus, and woebegone Jim, who endures a father (Eugene Levy), whose attempts to help are tone-deaf, and what he fears is an unattainable crush on stunning Czech exchange student Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth).
Though wincing at what its characters go through is the main source of "American Pie's" laughs, the film manages to treat almost everyone with respect, even, for the most part, the women, rarely the case in films like this. Naturally, everything comes down to a post-prom party at Stifler's mom's (Jennifer Coolidge) lakeside vacation home where wacky plot turns culminate in the kind of unexpected good feelings that characterize this most surprising of teenage films.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality, crude sexual dialogue, language and drinking, all involving teens. Times guidelines: The film does not play quite as off-putting as it sounds.
Jason Biggs: Jim
Shannon Elizabeth: Theresa
Alyson Hannigan: Dodge
Chris Klein: Johnny Land
Natasha Lyonne: Lina
Thomas Ian Nicholas: Charlie
Tara Reid: Vicky
Seann W. Scott: Stifler
Mena Suvari: Heather
Eddie Kaye Thomas: Finch
Eugene Levy: Jim's Dad
A Warren Zide/Craig Perry production released by Universal Pictures. Director Paul Weitz. Producers Warren Zide, Craig Perry, Chris Moore, Chris Weitz. Screenplay Adam Herz. Cinematographer Richard Crudo. Editor Priscilla Nedd-Friendly. Costumes Leesa Evans. Music David Lawrence. Production design Paul Peters. Art director Paul Peters. Set decorator Amy Wells. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
In general release.