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anatomy of a franchise

The Sequelitis Study of American Pie, Part 3: Our Writers Face the End, and a Lot of Bodily Fluids

All week long writers Gillian Flynn and Brian Raftery have been watching every single American Pie movie and spinoff to study what happens to a once-proud franchise when it devolves into a string of straight-to-video quickies. First they saw the two big-screen hits, then the final movie and first straight-to-video follow-up. And in this final installment, they suffer through the final three "American Pie Presents" DVDs, which center around increasing gross-out jokes, distant Stifler relatives, and, as ever, dependable Eugene Levy: The Naked Mile (2006), Beta House (2007), and The Book of Love (2009). Who is this series for anymore? Brand new horndogs, or old nostalgic horndogs? And with the brand now affiliated with dusty video-store shelves and unstarred Netflix listings, will anyone be excited for next year's touted wide-release American Reunion, with the original cast?


Brian Raftery: For the last five years, the American Pie producers have been facing a problem that would befuddle even the most steadfast Stifler: Namely, how to go for hours on end without going limp. Not only had the AP films seemingly exhausted every possible sensitive-horndog story line, but the filmmakers had increasing competition from Judd Apatow, whose Humor with Heart(TM) style managed to be gross and grown-up without getting too icky on either count. The AP movies suddenly seemed outgunned on both counts: Not raunchy enough to compete with the gutter-talking goofs of Superbad, and lacking in the post-adolescent earnestness of, say, The 40-Year-Old Virgin.


So when it came to the most recent straight-to-video installments, the producers had to choose: Get more emo, or more sicko? And, for the most part, they decided to simply aim for the horny-teen demo and let the body fluids fly, with each new installment — The Naked Mile, Beta House, and The Book of Love — outyucking its predecessor.


Gillian Flynn: Yeah, I’d say they go sicko with just a scosh of emo. In Naked Mile, our newest Stifler, Erik (cousin of Steve and Matt, if you really want to know), is a virgin! Erik (John White) is the nice Stifler who goes to visit the more Stifler-y Stifler, his cousin Dwight (Steve Talley), in college in order to ... yeah, sex. Erik is joined by his friend Coozeman. Ha: Cooze-Man! Yes! Like Biggs, White — who stars in Naked Mile and Beta House — is a likable enough actor and is certainly game for whatever humiliation is (literally) thrown his way. But ... wow, there’s just such an excess of humiliation to go around in these last three. And humiliation is different from raunchiness.


BR: They even managed to skeeve up Eugene Levy's simpleton-dad character, retrofitting him as a retired Lothario; by the end of Beta House, he’s essentially been turned into a nebbishy Caligula. It's depressing to watch Levy in these films — so much so, I wish there were a furry-browed ASCII pic that gets across how said it made me. How about this?


 ***** *****


 (   . )-(   .)


       ( ) `


   /--------\


Actually, that teardrop looks more like a prison tattoo. But you get the idea.


GF: You want to talk sad? After these last three, I looked at your emoticon and saw only a headless, dog-collared woman with big boobs, an under-breast tramp stamp, a navel ring, and a post-sex thong hastily slipped on backwards. Because, not to get all "I am a woman and I have thoughts in my noggin — no that's not my noggin, get out of there!" — but by the last three, all (slim) pretense of female character development has been shed like ... well, you can fill in the blank after that: clothes, condoms, dignity, what have you. Girls become things to be screwed or spewed upon. If you thought Levy's agent had a good news/bad news scenario going, what was the pitch for these women? "You get one line in this direct-to-video movie ... but you'll have to get naked ... and then they're going to vomit on you."


BR: Trust me: You don't need a pair of double-X chromosomes to become resentful of this series. In fact, as someone who maybe enjoyed a little Zapped! or Private School ... for Girls in his youth, I can personally attest that the longer the franchise goes, the more unsexy it gets. The nude scenes are especially perfunctory and sad; after each take, I expect the Red Cross was waiting off-camera, ready to give these suffering actresses cocoa and a blanket.


And while we're on the subject of sad women: In order to add a little bit of actorly credibility to the franchise, the creators of Book of Love cast Rosanna Arquette as a baffled suburban mom who spends much of her time looking for a vacuum (I believe it was Chekhov who said, "If you introduce a missing household appliance in act one, be sure somebody gets their dick stuck in it by act three"). Maybe this was a ploy to attract older viewers who remember Arquette from her eighties and nineties heyday — though that doesn't make sense, as she's not even mentioned on the front video box. We, as a society, should never have gotten to the point where somebody who was in both After Hours AND Pulp Fiction is reduced to making awkward condom talk. Can somebody start a Kickstarter campaign that would digitally remove her from all future Book of Love viewings?


GF: And as an Animal House fan, I'd like to undo the Tim Matheson cameo that appears late in the same movie, alongside eighties touchstones like Fast Times' Robert Romanus, The Outsiders' C. Thomas Howell, and Saved by the Bell's Dustin Diamond (I list in order of nostalgia-worthiness). Like Arquette, the casting seems aimed at the wrong age group ("casting" may be a euphemism for what I fear is the direct-to-video equivalent of hollywoodiscalling.com). I just can't believe that the target demographic here is going to recognize Otter, Damone, Ponyboy, or Screech several decades on. That said, I enjoyed this string of cameos more than the scene where the octogenarian hooker dies mid-fellatio. And I was someone who maybe enjoyed a little Private School ... for Moribund Whores in her youth.


BR: Alas, the series doesn’t go out on a high note. Which makes me wonder: What will happen when the Pie kids reunite next year? American Reunion will bring back the original cast for a big-screen version, but will the young kids weaned on the raunchy straight-to-video sequels want to watch a bunch of thirtysomethings talk about kids and mortgages? The producers managed to keep the franchise alive for twelve years, but it’s hard to tell whose American this is anymore.


Previously: Part 1: Two Writers Watch All Seven American Pies for a Case Study in Sequelitis
Part 2: Let the Straight-to-Videos Begin

Gillian Flynn is the author of Dark Places and Sharp Objects, and former TV critic for Entertainment Weekly. Brian Raftery is a Vulture contributor and author of Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life.