THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


American Pie 2 returns us to East Great Falls, Michigan - the town where, in 1999, a group of four friends vowed to lose their virginity by prom night. When we last saw Jim, Kevin, Finch, and Oz, they were raising a toast to the future. It is now a year later. They have all completed their freshman year of college and returned home for the summer. (Jim has already been caught in bed with a coed by his parents...and hers.) Seeking a combination of freedom and sex, the group, along with obnoxious Stifler, rents a beach house and prepares for a summer-long party.

Each of the guys has a problem related to sex: specifically, none of them are getting it. Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) bumps into former flame Vicky (Tara Reid) and realizes that he still has feelings for her. She's moved on and doesn't reciprocate those feelings, though. Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) finds himself obsessed with Stifler's mom (Jennifer Coolidge) and unable to get her out of his mind. Oz (Chris Klein) and Heather (Mena Suvari) are still together, but she's in Europe for the summer, leaving him alone. Stifler (Seann William Scott) is his usual self, trying at every turn to exploit some innocent young woman.

Jim, meanwhile, has learned that foreign exchange student Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) is coming back to the States to visit him. Knowing that she is going to want to have sex, he seeks out advice on how to be a better lover. To whom does he turn? None other than band geek Michelle (Alyson Hannigan). She gives him lessons in the art of seduction that would make even Madonna blush.

For a while, American Pie 2 shapes up as a great sequel. The opening party at Stifler's house mirrors the one that opened the original film, with the arrogant host insulting everyone before enduring a disgusting comeuppance. Everyone is at the party, including "The Shermanator" (Chris Owen) and the "M.I.L.F. guys" who now hail Finch as "a god" for having had Stifler's mom. It's good to see some of these characters again. They were funny in the original film, and they're funny here. (Actually, I think every character who had a speaking part in the original is in here somewhere.)

Eugene Levy plays concerned dad to Jason Biggs in American Pie 2
A lot of the trademark outrageous humor is funny too. Although no baked goods are harmed this time around, Jim does have an unfortunate incident with a bottle of Crazy Glue. There's also an amusing sequence in Oz and Heather try phone sex as a means of feeling closer, only to realize that someone's listening in. Writer Adam Herz knows how to craft scenes of comic embarrassment like no one else. And he's always smart enough to make the guys much less intelligent than the women. This kind of comedy can only avoid being offensive if the females have the upper hand intellectually.

The film's character development also deserves notice. There are some really nice moments between Jim and his ever-understanding dad (Eugene Levy) that go beyond comedy. I liked the relationship between Jim and Michelle a lot, too. In the original, she was little more than a joke, whereas in the sequel, she becomes a fully developed character. I'm so used to seeing Hannigan playing geeky roles, like she does here and on TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." In fact, she's so good in this kind of part that I'm always surprised when she nails an emotional scene. It's clear that this is a very good young actress.

As much as I liked parts of American Pie 2, I had a nagging feeling the whole time I was watching it. And that nagging feeling kept telling me this: the movie should be better than it is. The problem for me is that the script basically focuses on just three characters - Jim, Michelle, and Stifler. The other characters, especially the female ones, are relegated to the background and given nothing to do.

In fact, with the exception of Michelle, the film takes great measures to keep the girls out of the picture. Why did Heather have to be shipped off to Europe? I would have been interested in seeing how her relationship grew with Oz, who went from callous jock to sensitive guy in the original. The dynamics between Kevin and Vicky are also interesting because he still has feelings for her that he can't get past. Rather than following up on that, the movie basically forgets about the two before providing a forced (and unsatisfying) resolution at the end. Then there's Jessica (Natasha Lyonne), who was the Yoda of teenage sexuality in the original. In the sequel, she just stands around looking lost. It's shocking how little screen time some of the stars get.

As raunchy as American Pie was, it worked because we could identify and care about the characters. Pushing so many of them into the background this time was a big mistake. Their presence is sorely missed. Watching American Pie 2 is like going to a party where only half your friends have shown up. You might have a little bit of fun, but mostly you just think how great it would be if the whole gang was here.

( 1/2 out of four)

American Pie 2 is rated R for strong sexual content, crude humor, language and drinking. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.
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