Gross-out humor as a Trojan horse (Desserts or deserts: Part 3 of 4)
American Pie (1999), a movie about four high school boys who make a pact to lose their virginity before graduation, is famous for being disgusting. The late 90s/early naughts were the golden age of gross-out movies with standouts like Dumb and Dumber (1994), There’s Something About Mary (1998), and Jackass (2002). American Pie stands at the pinnacle of this dung heap, topping its peers in vulgarity. It’s easy to see the crass jokes as an end to themselves, but gross-out humor serves a purpose in American Pie. It inoculates the audience against the intolerable earnestness and tedium of teen love. Watching adults fall in love is wonderful entertainment, as the producers of reality shows on this subject know, but watching teens discover love is abhorrent. Movie audiences lack the patience for teen love stories, which is why the gross-out element is so important. It (1) acts as a sweetener, attracting crass audiences, and (2) makes banal expressions of teen love seem less gross and obnoxious by comparison. The scatological humor makes us receptive to a teen romance, which is what American Pie is at its core.
Before we get to the clumsy, earnest teen love that induces eye-rolling when presented without the ballast of gross-out humor, let’s briefly review American Pie’s nastiness because it’s been almost 25 years since this sludge leaked from the bottom of a torn kitchen garbage bag and ended up on in our theatres. (Read the previous sentence like a verse from “One Week” by Barenaked Ladies. It’s used twice in the movie and captures the irritating brashness of the late 90s and the movie itself.)
Of the four boys in the sex pact, Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is the most likely to succeed because he already has a girlfriend, Vicky (Tara Reid). At a house party, he tries to convince her to have sex but fails. She gives him consolation fellatio. Kevin conscientiously finishes in a half-empty cup of beer, which might appear quaint to modern audiences living in the age of Pornhub…
I’m not a prude, but describing tasteless moments from American Pie feels weird, as if the vulgarity intensifies through its retelling. Maybe using bullet points will blunt the foulness of these descriptions:
Jim’s (Jason Biggs) parents catch him masturbating. He has a sock on his penis as if it were the littlest Klan member.
Jim’s father (Eugene Levy) gives him a stack of pornography and walks him through the subtle nuances of the different magazines.
Jim copulates with a warm, freshly baked apple pie after his friends tell him it’s a close approximation of female genitalia.
This isn’t any better. I’m resting my case that American Pie is filthy, and trust that you believe me.
Oz (Chris Klein) provides the teen love storyline. Oz is a beefy, lacrosse-and-football-playing jock. He had some success early on with girls, but he humiliates himself hitting on a college girl. He takes her to makeout point and says, “Suck me, beautiful” to her as if these magic words would instantly set her libido ablaze. She laughs at him. She laughs even harder when he uses a line about how his friends call him Nova, short for Cassanova. This humiliation is an awakening for Oz. Instead of burrowing deeper into misogyny, which is probably the typical male response, Oz changes. He achieves impressive personal growth by absorbing the simple relationship advice the college girl charitably offers: Pay attention to a girl; be sensitive to her feelings; relationships are reciprocal.
Oz struggles initially to unlock any sort of sensitivity or empathy within himself. He joins vocal jazz to explore other means of expression and meet girls outside his usual social circle, girls who don’t know his reputation. He meets Heather (Mena Suvari), and instead of crudely propositioning her, he talks to her and tries to understand her:
Oz: “I just realized I don’t know anything about you. I was interested.”
Heather: “Oh, well, what do you want to know?”
Oz: “You know…stuff about you.”
The dialog is awful, but we accept it graciously because we’ve been drowning in dick jokes for the past twenty minutes and welcome any port in a storm. By this point, we’ve already watched Stiffler (Seann William Scott) guzzle a beer spiked with semen, so we have endless patience for awkward teen dialog. Oz is a meathead, but we recognize this is how teens talk outside of Dawson’s Creek.
Heather responds to Oz’s earnestness and asks him to prom. She does this in front of his lacrosse teammates, which is a mistake because they immediately make fun of her and Oz. Heather sees Stiffler spanking and humping the air (we invented this in the 90s) and assumes Oz is mocking her. She calls off the prom date, and this has the effect of making Oz pay closer attention to her in order to understand her feelings. At choir practice, Heather sings a line from “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)”: “I needed the shelter of someone’s arms, and there you were.” Without needing further explanation, he intuits that she feels betrayed by him. Oz has gained sensitivity and awareness of other’s feelings, which, for most teen boys in the 90s, is no less drastic than getting bitten by a spider and gaining superhuman abilities.
At this point, we’ve temporarily reached the outer limits of our tolerance for insipid teen love, so we immediately dive back into the restorative sludge of dick and feces jokes. There’s also a fair amount of female nudity. Jim surreptitiously records Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth), a vulnerable foreign exchange student, on a webcam as she changes clothes at his house. Jim mistakenly sends this broadcast to all the students at his school. Besides the traumatic invasion of privacy, Nadia is further victimized by being sent back home to Czechoslovakia. Jim only has to suffer the embarrassment of premature ejaculation. This scene would be unacceptable in the moral universe of teen movies today, but it is consistent with the casual cruelty of the 90s.
Refreshed, we return for the final installment of teen romance. We might not have made it this far without gross-out humor, which has an effect similar to blood doping. Through the four boys, we see a range of sexual experiences. Jim learns that sex is confusing but thrilling. For Kevin, sex is a letdown and physically awkward. It’s so awful that Vicky immediately breaks up with him rather than wait to drift apart in college. Finch discovers his MILF kink decades before it hits the mainstream. But for Oz and Heather, sex is effortless and expressive. Oz and Heather are wordlessly in tune with each other, communicating their desires with their eyes, fingertips, and lips. Their lovemaking is gentle and passionate, and in the morning, they sit entwined in each other’s bodies, watching the sunrise. I suspect this is the story the writer wanted to tell. Gross-out humor was the price he had to pay.
Written by Adam Herz; Directed by Paul and Chris Weitz