It’s been over a full decade since Eugene Levy caught his son Jim doing, well, unspeakable things to innocent baked fruit. I remember thinking that it was a great comedy if only I could keep my teenage boys from ever seeing the film. At the time, back in ’99 when Clinton was riding out a rocky ending based on having oral sex in the Oval Office, it seemed kind of quaint to see the President of the United States getting impeached for doing something the kids in American Pie thought wasn’t even real sex. Their theme was “All the Way by Graduation Day.” Ah, nostalgia…
American Pie re-defined a genre and paved the way for Superbad to do it again eight years later in 2007. Both American Pie and Superbad remind us that you’re never too old to relive the total humiliation of your teenage years, nor to remember (if you’re a guy) just how much you wanted to get in the Club and to realize it might just be out of reach.
Both of these raunchy films (with the now obligatory “heart”) give us groups of horny high school guys who would really like to have shed their virginity so they can truly relax and enjoy graduation, knowing that they will not have to spend the rest of their lives lying about what they did and did not do by the end of that fateful senior year. They know, apparently, that a diploma for merely passing classes is so not what it’s about. Both of these films — released eight years apart — hit the gold with audiences of all ages, and theaters during both releases were filled with actual screams of laughter. This ain’t gonna be easy… but let’s get started with the challenger…
By the time Superbad came out, the option of somehow keeping my kids from seeing it had pretty much expired, so I threw in the towel and went with my teenager. We’d just returned from a family vacation, jet-lagged as all hell, but as it turns out, this film was so entertaining and outrageous that the last thing you will ever do while watching it is go to sleep. As written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (who named the two leads after themselves), the film starts with dick jokes and similar raunch and never stops. But the thing is, the dialogue all feels very fluid and confident, even if underneath it all, it’s also just a little sad. The point is, most reviews will now tell you, it’s really not about the sex jokes, it’s about the friendship between Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera). Well, yeah, and the sex jokes. A third-wheel friend, Fogell, played by new kid Christopher Mintz-Plasse pretty much steals the show and the moniker “McLovin” has probably forever entered the nation’s vocabulary. These Three Musketeers have two goals for the evening of the last night of high school: first, supply booze to a party being thrown by a popular girl so they can achieve, second, some kind of sexual experience, no matter how messy and potentially humiliating.
The Defending Champion
Don McLean’s “American Pie” — a sweet song if there ever was one — was the #1 song when I was a kid, and it still sets me back that those two words will now forever be associated with sticking your penis is a piece of pastry. Oh, well. Another popular song that year was “Go All the Way” by the Raspberries which more accurately captures the moment. The plot in American Pie, as directed by Paul and Chris Weitz and written by Adam Herz, involves high school buddies knowing that if they don’t hurry up and get laid quickly, they are destined to go through life knowing their high school experience wasn’t as “fulfilling” as someone else’s. Jim (Jason Biggs) is the pie-defiler in this film, but it’s his relationship with his dad (Eugene Levy) that takes the cake (er, pie). I’ve raised two boys now and I’ve never had to support Larry Flynt to do that properly, but it sure is funny here. In any case, Jim and three of his friends make a pact to lose their virginity, and in fact, pull it off on the night of the high school prom in one fashion or another.
One of the problems with American Pie and the series of increasingly silly sequels it spawned is that the kids all look a little too old to be high schoolers. But, man, the three leads in Superbad do not have that problem. They feel perfectly cast. If you could find a control group of viewers who had seen neither film and give them only the scripts, it would be interesting to see what they would take away from each.
Another big contrast is the actual appearance of parents. There aren’t any in Superbad, only a couple of cops as stand-ins who are as f’d up as the kids while, as noted, it’s a central part of American Pie and its comedy. Remember Mrs. Stifler?
Which takes us to tone. Funny as it is, the relationship of Jim and his dad in American Pie is never truly real. Maybe I’ve just seen Levy in too many other silly roles, but you can’t take him seriously. By stripping out the parents interacting with the kids, Superbad feels more authentic, except for the times McLovin’ is out hanging with the cops who feel decidely un-real themselves.
The mission in the two films isn’t simply to get laid. In Superbad, it involves some major illegal underage drinking. These kids realize that there are women who sometimes get drunk and sleep with the wrong guys and they long to be “those guys.” This is far closer to reality than what happens to the four boys of American Pie. Personally, I think it’s doubtful if even the allure of the prom is sufficient to get 100% compliance in the sex-before-graduation game.
Back in the summer of 1999, American Pie was a leading wave in moral boat-rocking. More than a few reviewers and parents groups were shocked that such material could be aimed at any age group, let alone teenagers. But it was, and what was shocking then had become the norm by the summer of 2007 when Superbad gave us a five minute montage of intricately drawn sketches of the male sex organ. Is that a point scored for or against our culture? Unclear. But funny.
Honestly, though, both films grabbed audiences big-time in the summers of their releases, and like I say, this one could go either way…
If I had to go back to my own high school days and ask myself which one of these films most accurately captured the time, I’d have to go with Superbad. I had a friend who was a Seth who treated me like a Fogell, but I thought of myself as an Evan. The mere fact that I can state that with a straight face pretty much tells you how universal this film really is. If you just look at the two films as high school comedies about friends, the call has to go to Seth & Evan, who feel like real friends, and not Jim & Kevin & Chuck & Steve who feel like comedic creations. So, as time goes by, I’m gonna remember Don McLean for “American Pie” and give the Smackdown win here to the new champ, Superbad.