'American Reunion' & 'Damsels in Distress': Youth Is Revolted

Today we review two new movies based on faded youth, the American Pie gang getting back together for American Reunion and Whit Stillman's revisiting college life with Damsels in Distress.

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What do you remember most about the 1999 teen sex comedy American Pie? Is it the apple pie? The jizz in the cup? The "one time at band camp" punchline? These gross-outs were the hallmarks of the film's wild summer success lo those many years ago, but oddly they aren't really the moments that the new film in this unending series, American Reunion, hopes you have cherished and held dear for the past decade. No, American Reunion, the franchise's fourth theatrical release (there's a million more direct-to-video spin-offs), is much more concerned with the stuff that happened between all the yucky yuks. You know, all that mushy stuff.

Terrifyingly, American Reunion finds our main dudes — Jason Biggs' stuttering average guy, Chris Klein's sensitive jock, Eddie Kaye Thomas' suave weirdo, and Thomas Ian Nichols'... um... guy who dated Tara Reid in the first one — in the hideous throes of their thirties, now all with jobs and receded hairlines and paunches that have appeared since teen metabolism slowed and disappeared. The last theatrical feature in this franchise came nine long years ago, and those years have been unkind in varying degrees to these still mostly familiar faces. But it's not really sagging this or widened that that startles about the advanced chronology of this movie, it's just the simple fact that the original film is soon to be thirteen years old, that whole babies have turned into teenagers since Jim first stuck it in that pie. American Pie predates American Idol! Bill Clinton was president when that movie came out for cripe's sake. How much has happened in history, in our own lives since that dumb movie came out is rather galling. And, oddly, the movie knows it.

There's a strange but, I guess, unavoidable chord of melancholy running through American Reunion, which tells the story of the four high school buds, plus perpetually obnoxious party boy Stiffler (Seann William Scott, wearing his years like a sad suit), returning to their idyllic Michigan hometown for their... thirteenth reunion. Heh, yeah, they couldn't quite get the movie made in time for 2009 so they made up a little story that's briefly mentioned about the planning committee not getting their act together. But whatever, the point is that they're all arriving in town with their own single problem that they'll need to fix over the course of the film. Jim (Biggs) now has a young son with the horny flutist he bagged in the first film and married in the third, only their marital bed has gone a bit cold since the baby came, and they'd like to work on that during their weekend away. (First bit of advice with that, guys? Don't stay at anyone's parents' house. Get a hotel! You're adults!) Klein's character, Oz, is now a fancy SportsCenter-esque cable sports guy with a hot girlfriend (30 Rock's Katrina Bowden, showing occasional flairs of comedic potential) but he's feeling a little existentially empty. Remember he's the sweet jock, he just wants a kinda cozy life that's all boring and settled, and yet somehow he ended up on this show and with this girl and, in a running joke throughout the film, on a Dancing With the Stars-esque show on which he hip-hop danced foolishly. Eddie Kay Thomas' Finch has just swept into town with a host of crazy travel adventure stories, only something seems fishy about them. And Thomas Ian Nichols' character is married to a lady that isn't Tara Reid. That's... that's basically his problem I guess? He was never that developed of a character, was he? Actually none of these guys really ever were. They were setups — horny nerd, sensitive jock, undercover lothario, guy with a girlfriend — and little else, only now we're expected to be invested in, like, their lives. It's awkward.

Most awkward of all, though, is the aforementioned Mr. Stiffler. As if the pain of seeing Scott's disappearing hair wasn't enough, the writers Hayden Schlossberg and Jon Hurwitz saddle him with the saddest story of them all: He lives at home with his infamous mom (Jennifer Coolidge), he's a lowly temp at some sort of finance firm, and nobody talks to him anymore. Par...ty? He's supposed to represent how everyone has to grow up and start to take things seriously (always a fun message for a comedy) but he's so profoundly pathetic, with his lax bro talk and sleeveless Ts and all that, that the whole movie doesn't come across as the gentle paean to maturity that it's supposed to be, it feels instead like a "holy sweet Jesus getting old is horrifying" nightmare. There is something determinedly depressing about American Reunion, even when it's recapturing old raunchy glory.

Indeed, filthy and outrageous things happen in this movie. Stiffler defecates in the beer cooler of some mean teenagers (yes, mean teenagers) and the head mean teen sticks his hand in it. Jim's newly hot 18-year-old next door neighbor runs around topless for an amount of time that made me feel bad for the young actress hoodwinked into doing this. (Remember Shannon Elizabeth!) And, most surprisingly, we get an almost lingering look at Jim's penis squished grotesquely under a glass pot lid. So the movie "goes there," and there is absolutely some giddy verve to these wild scenes. But, strangely, they really aren't the main focal points of this movie. No those belong to the more earnest and wistful moments. The gross-out scenes actually seem almost like afterthoughts, as if this cheesy nostalgic script was written and then they remembered that, oh yeah, people come here for body fluids and dick japes. All these grownups, these real adults (Alyson Hannigan, who plays Jim's wife, is 38 years old) are respectably game, but the thing feels tired despite their best efforts. So when this movie isn't sad, it's tired. Not a great combination.

Just about all the old cast shows up at some point throughout the movie, some with bigger parts than others. There's Mena Suvari tempting Klein with her bland safeness. There's Tara Reid being Tara Reid for the guy whose character has something to do with Tara Reid. There's the MILF guy and, uh, the Sherminator, and... sigh. This movie sadly relies on all of us to have really treasured these old characters and jokes in a way that feels a bit presumptuous. Or at least embarrassing. Was American Pie, with its corny white Aéropostale sensibility, really such a cultural touchstone? Have we really invested ourselves so deeply in these guys that we care what they're doing now that they're not fancy-free teens or college students anymore? American Reunion feels almost like medicine, like they're forcing those of us in a certain age group (people like me who were teenagers when the original came out and are now skirting both edges of 30) to get their dose of reality and mortality. Yes, we're all getting older. We know. Did we need Jim and company, those dudes from that comedy once, to come back to remind us, in occasionally hideous fashion? Was it necessary to kill off Jim's mom just so, I dunno, Eugene Levy could have a few comedy scenes? I don't think so! No thank you. You guys all seem nice enough, but we're good. We don't need any reminding. We respect the effort, but it's wholly unnecessary.

So, goodbye, American Pie. Lose our address. Don't send us anything about the next reunion. We don't know when it is, but we already know we can't make it. We've got lives, you know.


From the horrors of faded youth to the irritatingness of current youth, we move to the campus of Seven Oaks, the fictional top-tier college dreamed up by Whit Stillman for his new film Damsels In Distress. Like American Pie, Stillman's last film (The Last Days of Disco) came out in the late '90s, so it's been a very long wait for fans of his talky, stagey, specific work. I must confess I am not one of those people, so if you're looking for some sort of dialectic comparing this latest film to the ideas and themes in Metropolitan or Barcelona, you should probably look elsewhere. For the rest of you, let it be known that Damsels, for all of its obvious smarts and appealing actors and flirty music, is a bizarrely off-tone and unpleasant picture.

The film concerns a group of Seven Oaks girls, led by the proper and befrocked Violet (Greta Gerwig), who take it upon themselves to better their and other people's lives through a warped sense of old-timey virtue. These girls aren't prudes, exactly, they're not scolds or nags, really, they're just nosy and wrong but convinced of their rightness. They speak (well, really, everyone in this movie speaks) in a stilted, affected style that I suppose could be seen as a satire of the way a pretentious college student might write a paper, but Stillman clearly finds plenty of actual wit in the things his characters say, so you probably can't call it outright parody. The better assumption might be that Stillman is parodying himself, that all the advanced-level Dawson's Creek speak and aren't-we-droll references (there's a Catharism/anal sex joke that's bawdy in its pretentiousness and pretentious in its bawdiness) is a parody of his own chatty filmmaking style, but we're not sure there's any evidence to suggest he has any intention of being that self-aware. I fear this may just be the irritating script he earnestly wrote.

At the start of the film, Violet and her minions, who, in the press notes, Stillman says are based on groups of girls he'd heard about from his friends' college experiences, find themselves a new project in the transfer student Lily (the gawky but gamine Analeigh Tipton), who joins their group and entertains their social philosophizing initially out of amused curiosity but eventually becomes a believer. Meanwhile Violet's life begins to tailspin, "tailspin" is a word used often and specifically throughout the film, and the tables gently turn. That's sort of what happens in this movie, though the plot really has more of a meandering sideways quality to it than anything forward or linear. People date, people break up. People walk and talk, then talk and walk. It's a lot of little vignettes that would be kind of cozy if it weren't for the icy and isolating language and general fussy, fusty creakiness that sinks what should be a rather light and airy film.

Whit Stillman has not, as far as I know, been in college for a long time. So while it might seem amusing to him to have sweater-setted retrograde types walking around writing a new version of The Rules, the ultimate joke of the film doesn't land because it has no contemporary context. My best guess was that he is making fun of entitled, helicopter-parent generation kids who are all convinced that they're little genius snowflakes, but there are enough broad references to brutish fraternity life and male aggression in the film (and in things Stillman himself has said about the movie) that I think he thinks he's just parodying College, as an institution. If that is the ultimate intent, he doesn't so much fall short as shoot in completely the wrong direction. No, Mr. Stillman, college is this way. Over here. Not back there. It's as if he thinks the last twenty years of irony and internet were somehow unable to penetrate college campuses. (I don't even remember seeing a cellphone in the movie.)

That said, there are certainly moments of charm in the film. Tipton is piquant and appealing, as is Adam Brody (sighhh) as one of her love interests. And Megalyn Echikunwoke, as one of Violet's sidekicks who is obsessed with avoiding "operator type" guys, handles her strange script with elegant humor. If only Gerwig, in arguably the central role, didn't seem to be doing such a tiresome feat of non-acting. The jury is still out, at least mine is anyway, on whether Gerwig is actually an actress or merely an indie curio, and unfortunately this film does not help make the decision any easier. Whatever she is doing in this film, it's fatally annoying — she quickly becomes the symbol of all that is off about this stuttering, spluttery misfire of a movie.

I know that I'm in the minority for not liking this off-putting and strenuously effortful film — it is so much work to tolerate all of the film's quirks, like an obsession with "dance crazes" and cartoonishly dumb jocks who don't understand what colors are — but whatever core joke or thesis there is that people are latching onto must have completely eluded me. Maybe I'm like that jock, fundamentally unable to tell when a chair is blue or when a movie is good, but for me Damsels In Distress did little beyond making Mr. Stillman, one-time talky indie voice of a generation, influencer of Wes and Noah, seem just plain old. There's a lot of that going around these days, it seems.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.