The way gender roles in romantic comedies are degradingly rigid has been mentioned on this site before. As Susan Heyn says, “Chick flicks…uphold degrading stereotypes, preach to women how they are to behave and what is expected of them, and contribute to distorted ideas of romance.” She goes on to draw a parallel to explosive action films, suggesting that maybe they should be called “dick flicks.” Not inappropriate, but I think a more apt comparison would be to teen sex comedies like the American Pie series (2005-2009): movies centered on bros who think about literally nothing but sex. These types of films, aside from being funny to exactly no one over fifteen years old, insist that men are robots incapable of doing anything other than imagining women naked. They also draw a firm line in the sand: either you can hang out with your friends, or you can be a good husband/boyfriend. Never both, bro.
The jokes in these movies rely purely on puns, no matter how weak (an actual line from American Reunion: “Will you come to my party? I want you to come so bad!” Yeah, people laughed at that), or on sexually awkward situations (the entire film series is based on the idea that a high school kid is so desperate that he would masturbate with an apple pie). This is not a recipe for sophistication, intelligence, or humor, but most importantly, it’s not a recipe for any semblance of realism. You can argue that these movies are supposed to be absurdist and ridiculous, but even absurd humor comes from some sort of basis in reality.
Adam Herz, one of the writers of the original films, said that the title American Pie comes from the idea that “the quest to lose one’s virginity in high school is as American as apple pie.” Well, I’ve always preferred pumpkin pie with my Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe I’m a communist.
American Reunion, the fourth installment in the series involving the original cast, is so tone-deaf that you envision everyone involved being the kind of person who sings Journey out of tune at an empty karaoke night. It has to be worse than the others seem. Put it this way: Friday, I was saddled with a 24-hour flu, never moving from my bed except to puke six or seven times. Saturday, I saw American Reunion, and it was just as bad of an experience.
While it comes a teen comedy pedigree, American Reunion is secretly a romantic comedy about Jim and Michelle’s marriage finding its spice again (don’t tell the bros). Unlike the quest to lose his virginity in the first movie, Jim is now facing the even more daunting task of finding time to have sex while a toddler lives in his house. To help him with this complicated task, he and his family travel back to his father’s house and he goes out drinking with his high school buddies.
Shall we catch up? Oz is now a sportscaster in Los Angeles who does awkward TV spots with Chad Ochocino and dates a free spirited model, Mia (30 Rock’s (2006- ) Katrina Bowden, who’s apparently not a subscriber to Liz Lemonism). Stifler is still unfunnily loutish. His opening scene consists of the classic rom-com walk-through-the-office, where he struts around telling women that they were hired for their looks, swiping coffee from a passive coworker, and telling an older coworker he’s been fired (we later find out that this revelation leads to a heart attack). As it turns out, Stifler is only a temp at the company because, honestly, what else could he be? Finch has been wandering the earth, Jules Winnfield-style. Kevin is married and works from home, and while it’s revealed in a throwaway line that he’s an architect, he’s mostly made fun of for being a househusband, and his wife DVRs Real Housewives (2006-2011) and The Bachelorette (2003- ). Well, I assume she DVRs them – DVR is too technologically advanced for the movie to acknowledge by name.
See, this movie – its jokes, actors, and grasp of technology – is completely stuck in the 1990s. One gag involves the guys distracting Jim’s neighbors while he sneaks their drunk (and naked) daughter up to her room (to sleep – for once, Jim isn’t trying to get laid). Stilfer says that their car has broken down and asks to use their phone to call AAA. The father incredulously asks why none of them have cell phones. When Finch chastises Stifler, he protests, “The last time I did this, cell phones didn’t exist.” You have to wonder if the original draft of this script was written before cell phones existed. In fact, with some common sense and cell phone use, the whole excruciating gag could have been avoided.
The drunk neighbor is Kara, whom Jim used to babysit. She’s now eighteen, but the kind of eighteen that only exists in movies (she has a supermodel body and friends who have supermodel bodies, all of whom drink heavily, wear skimpy bikinis, and are virgins). The guys all decide to go to the Falls for old times’ sake (something that I’m sure that I’m missing from the earlier movies) and stumble upon her eighteenth birthday party. Jim is supposed to get home to Michelle so that they can have sex but decides to stick around because of, you know, the guys: Finch is trying to get with Selena, Kevin is catching up with Vicky, Oz is catching up with Heather, and Stifler is hell-bent on statutory rape. At the end of the night, Kara asks Jim to take her home, since she’s too drunk to drive. Jim does the reasonable thing and drives her home, and she immediately starts acting super drunk, trying to kiss Jim, telling him she wants him to be her first time, and then throwing her dress out of the sunroof, and leaving her clad only in bikini bottoms (where did the top go? Who cares? Boobs!). Eventually, she passes out face-down in Jim’s crotch, and only then does Jim enlist the help of the guys to sneak her into the house and the aforementioned scene occurs. By the time Jim gets out of Kara’s house and back to his dad’s (where he’s supposed to have sex), he passes out with his clothes on.
How easily could this have all been avoided? Jim calls Michelle, mobile-to-mobile, and says they stumbled on Kara’s party and he’s going to hang out for a bit. Then, after a while, Jim tells everyone he has to get home to his wife. His friends, being mature, understanding adults (Stifler excluded), understand. If Kara asks for a ride home, he can call Michelle and explain that he’s driving Kara home. If Kara starts getting crazy and stripping down, he can wrap her in a towel, and when he pulls into her parents’ driveway, she will (presumably) be shocked back to her senses. Then he goes home, tells the story of this craaaazy bitch next door to his loving and trusting wife, and then they go to bed.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way men function in dick flicks because they are completely ruled by their, um, dicks. There is no loving, trusting relationship when you’re at a party with your bros, even if you’re “trying to be a good husband.” If you’re with your wife/girlfriend, you’re a boring automaton with a pink baby bag. It’s an extraordinarily false dichotomy – yes, there are times when bros must chill with bros and girls must do girls things. And yes, there are times when the presence of a destructive or emotionally abusive relationship can seriously affect groups of friends and family – that’s a different animal entirely.
But in the world I inhabit, I can invite my girlfriend to parties/brunches/beach picnics thrown by my friends, most of whom have their own wives/girlfriends, and everyone can have a good time. She can invite me to things thrown by her friends. Everyone can get a little rowdy, the bros can still talk about sports, the women can still talk about Real Housewives, and we can all find some middle ground. Hardly anybody takes their clothes off, and no one tries to rape anyone while they’re driving.
That’s the issue with American Reunion. I can believe high schoolers acting this impulsively sex-driven, but I don’t inhabit the same world as these adult characters, and the movie makes no effort to make me believe that this world is real. If my best friends were staring at my girlfriend in a bikini (in front of their wives, no less), I’d say something (before their wives slapped the hell out of them). It goes beyond an exaggerated stereotype: it re-asserts the Madonna-whore complex for women and turns men into walking penises while asserting a different kind of dichotomy. Let’s call it Ward Cleaver vs. Charlie Sheen. There’s nothing wrong with the harmless fun of a dumb comedy, but the words “harmless,” “fun,” and “comedy” hardly apply to American Reunion.