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Stiffed

 

American Wedding

Jesse Dylan, USA, 2003

Rating: 1.8

 

 

Posted: August 4, 2003

By Laurence Station

Call it the Stifmeister Quotient: Screen time for Seann William Scott's wisecracking, obnoxious friend-you-love-to-avoid, Steve Stifler, has increased dramatically with each film in the American Pie series. Stifler was peripheral at best in the first, became a central character in the MTV Beach House-styled sequel, and has finally reached what must be his cultural zenith (or, more appropriately, nadir) with the latest installment in the sight gag-driven, gross-out sex comedy franchise. Why Stifler? The answer is obvious: Despite a lackluster box-office career outside of the Pie series -- Bulletproof Monk, anyone? -- Scott is far and away the Pie ensemble's biggest breakout star. (No one's banging down Jason Biggs' door to co-host the MTV Movie Awards.) Scott's ubiquity, then, all but demands that he dominate this (presumably final) chapter in Adam Herz's initially affectionate, now simply beaten-to-death ode to growing up in East Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The downside of making Stifler the main focus here is twofold. For one, the film is called American Wedding, as in the nuptials of the series' ostensible focal point, the sweetly clueless Jim (Jason Biggs, reduced to a supporting player), and band camp enthusiast/girlfriend Michelle (Alyson Hannigan). Unfortunately, the wedding is only a flimsily constructed excuse for Stifler to stumble from one lame sight gag to the next. Which illustrates the second downside: Characters like Stifler work best in small doses. He shows up, does or says something funny and vanishes, much like The Fonz in Happy Days or Kramer in Seinfeld. But in Wedding, it's all Stifler, all the time, sort of like the restaurant full of John Malkovichs in Being John Malkovich. Stifler's omnipresence is gratuitous, and works against his strengths as a winning supporting character.

Asking Stifler to carry the film not only stretches the character's charm to the breaking point, it sadly undermines the intent and appeal of the original film, that being the sexual awkwardness of the teenage years (wonderfully embodied by the ever-put-upon Jim). American Pie was raunchy and tasteless, sure, but like its titular confection, it possessed an underlying sweetness. You rooted for Jim to find that special someone in the end -- or at least get laid trying. Wedding purportedly aims to trace Jim's evolution from awkward schlep to fumbling college kid to a fumbling young man taking a further step toward adulthood. But for that to happen, poor Jim has to have adequate screen time, and Wedding just can't get Stifler off the screen. One gets the feeling Scott was the production's highest paid actor, and the studio decided to make damn sure it got its money's worth out of him. Fair enough. But Herz could have at least come up with better material for Scott to work with. (A director with a knack for pacing, or even just knowing when to end a scene wouldn't have hurt: Jesse Dylan -- yes, as in son of Bob, older brother of Jakob -- does neither his family name nor the series, which here endures its third director in as many installments, any favors.)

An example that illustrates both points: Stifler wants to surprise Jim with a bachelor party at his parents' house. To that end, he hires two strippers (bad cop and French maid) and, naturally, just as things are getting wild, Jim arrives. Only he's not alone; he has his future in-laws in tow. A scene ripe with comedic possibilities is then cruelly squandered. It goes on and on, without ratcheting up the tension or raising the stakes, and fails to offer anything particularly amusing, save for father-in-law-to-be Fred Willard's surprised/titillated reaction to the strippers' jiggling breasts. Perhaps Herz and Dylan should have studied the Farrelly Brothers' infinitely superior There's Something About Mary for an excellent example of how to do shocking situational comedy properly. Specifically, the scene in which Matt Dillon gives a dog sleeping pills in order to calm it down, and then, presuming incorrectly that he's killed it, connects electrodes to the dog to shock it back to life, inadvertently setting the animal on fire. The scene masterfully scales from one increasingly desperate situation to the next, at a rapid clip, and the payoff is hilarious. There's nothing nearly as inspired in Wedding -- nor was there in the affable American Pie 2, for that matter, a sure sign that all involved should have quit while they were still at least a little bit ahead.

American Wedding draws out every predominantly Stifler-driven moment to its absolute limit, and killing any hope of shocking and/or spontaneously appealing moments. By the time Stilfer pulls a Divine and eats a piece of excrement, the film serves up an ironic comment on itself, an apt illustration of what went wrong: Too much Stifler, and not enough Pie, leaves a crappy aftertaste in one's mouth.

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