But somewhere between setup and punch line, American Pie 2 starts feeling less like a sequel and more like the second episode of a TV series, a case of fine-tuning after the pilot's been picked up by the network. It at once demands you've seen the original and offers enough to appease the virgin for whom it's just enough to watch Jim play trumpet out the wrong end or Stifler (Seann William Scott, a shit-eating grin with legs) get urinated on during a golden shower that lasts so long, it teeters on becoming obscene. It at once ups the so-bad-taste-it-tastes-good ante and ditches the cloying heartwarming moments that made its precursor play like Porky's with scruples; the result is something far more fun and honest.
Maybe that's because this outing's not about four boys trying to lose their virginity, but four young men trying to mature against their instincts. The film even provides a nifty, touching bit of closure by suggesting the only way some of us can be cool is to engage and embrace the geek within, which only further links the American Pie series to John Hughes's early films, especially Sixteen Candles. Jason Biggs is Anthony Michael Hall for the R-rated, dildo-waving, piss-drunk, fuck-dazed crowd: the cocksure nerd who becomes a man only when he realizes he ain't fooling anyone. American Pie 2, bless its dopey, trashy heart, is sweet, without venturing into the saccharine (no James Taylor songs at choir recitals this time).
Wisely, in Adam Herz's screenplay, characters who overstayed their welcome in Chris and Paul Weitz's original have been scaled back and rendered elevated bit players. Oz (Chris Klein, his face full of blank good cheer) and Heather (Mena Suvari, ditto and then some) are separated when Heather spends her summer abroad. These wide-eyed puppies in a world of horndogs are given little to do but engage in phone coitus interruptus; Herz can't be bothered to deal with the subject of trust and temptation when separated by thousands of miles. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas, looking like Jon Stewart) and Vicky (Tara Reid, looking like Tara Reid's mother), so in love the first time around, are now merely clumsy friends who act more like strangers. Their tenuousness around each other feels real, but their conversations are so hollow, we never hear half of them, which are buried beneath occasional musical montages set on the beach, where the boys have taken up summer residence in a house that looks like something on Martha Stewart's Vineyard.
With them out of the way, the movie rides the backs of its three most interesting male leads: Jim, still trying to recover from what his father (Eugene Levy, still dry as the Sahara) refers to as his "sexual debacles"; Stifler, who will do anything, even make out with another guy, at the mere promise of watching two women having sex; and the tantra-obsessed Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), who stores his orgasms the way a squirrel saves nuts as he prepares for another encounter with Stifler's Mom (Jennifer Coolidge). More prominent is American Pie's best bit player, band-camper Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), who once more brandishes her flute (and a few more instruments) when Jim seeks her counsel as he prepares for another shot at Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth, channeling Boris Badenov).
Michelle, in truth, is almost the movie's central figure: She's as wise as the guys are unformed, as prescient as they are insensible. If Heather and Vicky provided the original film's conscience -- they were, after all, the girls who changed their respective boyfriends from loutish boys to sensitive men -- then Michelle is the new paradigm. In the first film, she was the geek with a wild side: She had her flute, and she wasn't afraid to use it.
She was also the girl who treated Jim like a piece of meat; in a film that honorably had little interest in exploiting its women, she was the most masculine character of all. "I didn't want you to pretend you were in love with me," she tells Jim, explaining here why she ditched him before morning in American Pie. Michelle practiced what Natasha Lyonne's world-weary Jessica, seen here in a smaller part, only preached. Though you can see where Jim and Michelle are headed -- into the bedroom, of course -- theirs becomes a candid, real relationship worth caring about and rooting for. You could say the same for American Pie 2.