The 90s were a dark decade for fun stuff aimed at teens and tweens. Grunge music and gangsta rap ruled the airwaves, and young people were into acting sullen and disturbed. Any entertainment that could be considered kiddie or corporate was rejected outright in favor of culture stuff that was gritty and dark. But, by 1999, change was in the air. The prevailing trends of the decade had run their course, boy bands and Britney Spears started showing up on the radio, and the first movie that attempted to bring back the raunchy teenage sex comedy, American Pie, became a runaway success that launched a long-lived, multi-film franchise. Kurt Cobain was dead, long live Stifler.
In 2005 Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale got a lot of attention in the world of indie and art films, much of it due to the performance of its lead actor, a young kid named Jesse Eisenberg. Over the next few years Eisenberg’s fame rose as he accrued another handful of indie credits, and eventually his career hit a peak when he anchored a mainstream horror comedy in Zombieland, and then got to work with one of the biggest directors in the business, David Fincher, on The Social Network. After Eisenberg played Zuckerberg it was official, the guy was a bonafide celebrity. But, despite his fame, one of his earliest films, 2002’s Roger Dodger, still hasn’t been seen by very many people, and very rarely gets brought up even in film geek circles, even though it’s really good.
What do they have in common?
Both American Pie and Roger Dodger feature characters who have yet to have sex, who have become completely obsessed with losing their virginities, and who make some pretty bad decisions due to their obsession. For the boys of American Pie’s East Great Falls High School, that mistake is making a ridiculous pact that they’ll all get laid, come hell or high water, before the end of their senior year. For Roger Dodger’s young Ohioan, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), it means traveling to New York City and experiencing a sleazy night on the town alongside his predatory uncle, Roger (Campbell Scott), so that he can learn the secrets to bedding a woman.
Why is American Pie overrated?
Despite the fact that American Pie can inarguably be considered a pox on humanity for making us endure the past thirteen years of people using the term MILF, and for making us listen to Chris Klein’s rendition of “How Sweet It Is” about thirty times during its runtime, it’s also pretty lame because it’s just not funny. It’s got its three big gags, Stifler drinking Henry Rowengartner’s jizz, the boning of the pie, and Jason Biggs prematurely ejaculating during a scene that basically invented social media… but none of these things are even funny. They’re just gross. Sure, they felt fresh at the time because comedies hadn’t gone for gross out humor in about a decade, but many years and many American Pie ripoffs later, these scenes just look sad and dated, and the film doesn’t feature any clever dialogue or witty one-liners to back them up. American Pie is a comedy without any laughs.
Also, did you ever wonder why none of these kids went on to do much even after this series got so popular? It’s because they’re all lousy, terrible, no good actors. Biggs is the most milquetoast comic lead ever, Klein trying to do anything other than play a dope is insulting, Shannon Elizabeth trying to act in her own accent is bad enough without her playing Eastern European, Mena Suvari talks like she has peanut butter in her mouth, and somehow, even with all this badness on display, none of the previously mentioned people come close to matching the wretchedness that comes from Thomas Ian Nicholas and Tara Reid sharing dramatic scenes together. Their stuff is painful to watch, grinds an already boring movie to a halt, and feels like unnecessarily cruel audience torture. Run, Alyson Hannigan and Seann William Scott! Run far away from your co-stars! Save your own careers!
So, not funny and full of terrible acting… that’s bad enough right there. We don’t even need to go into the creepy rape vibe that this entire movie gives off. There’s no need to dissect how these kids set up hidden cameras to secretly tape an unwitting girl having sex, which gets treated like a light-hearted gag. Or how their broadcasting of her sex tape on the Internet gets her deported, which is information that’s given to us in a throwaway line. No, this stuff isn’t important. You wouldn’t even notice the douchey, disgusting rape mentality at the center of this movie if any of the jokes were actually hitting. So let’s not even bring it up.
Why is Roger Dodger underpraised?
Roger Dodger is more of a drama than it is anything else, but it still manages to be funnier than American Pie, because all of the dark humor that creeps in flows naturally from its characters, while American Pie throws character and believable behavior out the window in service of its gags. You can’t help but laugh at the depths the Roger character will sink to in order to prop himself up, and it’s impossible not to nervously chuckle as you watch Eisenberg awkwardly squirm when put in inappropriately sexual situations. You’re not asked to believe that an already nervous kid would be so enticed by the sexual possibilities of a pie that he would penetrate it, on the kitchen counter, in the middle of the afternoon when his parents should be coming home. Instead, this material becomes funnier as the characters become better developed and you begin to anticipate the way they’re going to react to things. This is what’s funny, human stuff, not boners and bad language.
The way the Roger character is presented can get pretty fascinating, as well. Roger Dodger takes all of the arrested adolescence, sexism, and casual misogyny of American Pie, and essentially makes a horror movie monster out of it. When Roger is first introduced to us, he’s on top of the world, charming everyone with his blunt assessment of where the battle of the sexes is heading. He’s almost a Stifler-esque character: the braying jackass who gets hoisted up on everyone’s shoulders in celebration of his crudity. But then things take a turn. As the film goes on, his act becomes transparent to more and more people, he becomes increasingly more desperate, and consequently he’s increasingly more annoying to spend time with. Finally, he ends the film having only a table of naive high school dorks willing to indulge his alpha male posturing; a pitiable fate that lies in stark contrast to how American Pie treats a character like Stifler, who gets to end the film a lovable goof whose sexism everyone has forgotten.
The journey of sexual conquest that Roger takes his young nephew on reveals a handful of interesting truths about the way the opposite sexes interact, but it always remains ambiguous enough to not get preachy. There are scenes that expose the slowly dehumanizing effect that concentrating all of your efforts on casual sexual encounters can have. There’s some commentary on how the more you connect with someone on a human level, the less of a chance you have to know them carnally. And there are also some hints that, as empty and soul-sucking as the dating game can be, it’s still an inevitable lie that we all have to take part in, at least on some level. With being yourself getting thrown out the window as an option, the question then becomes how much of yourself you can salvage after you’ve been ground through the dating machine. In the end, Roger Dodger leaves you slightly disoriented, but contemplative and engaged.
Evening the odds.
Sometimes, in the movie business, timing can be everything. If American Pie had been released four years earlier, in 1995, would it have been roundly rejected by an audience of cynical and sarcastic flannel wearers, rather than embraced by kids who were starting to wear polos and cargo shorts and listen to pop punk? And if Roger Dodger had been released four years later, in 2006, after Eisenberg had been established as a star on the rise, would it have been a cult favorite that got passed around in artsy circles, rather than a footnote that nobody remembers?
It’s tough to say. But what’s clear is, watching both of these films again at least a decade after their releases, American Pie looks like a pile of crap, and Roger Dodger is still an interesting film that’s worth checking out.