September is here, which means there is still a “back to school” feeling in the air, even for people who work year-round.
I still have a wistful sadness at the end of Summer. It still represents a moment of freedom in people’s lives. They can briefly abandon their responsibilities to travel and make childish mistakes that they’ll end up laughing at on their next trip.
For many years, I thought that growing older meant I’d finally have the experiences I saw in these movies. High school and college were places where I only had to intermittently attend a class. It would be a time to find my true self, show those evil popular kids who the real boss was, and find out that attractive women only exist to further my sense of self-worth.
But now, as I look back at some of these moments, I wonder if I wasn’t lied to about what to expect in my formative years. Correction – I KNOW I was lied to. So were a lot of people, and now it’s coming back to haunt them. These same producers who bankrolled teen sex comedies thought it would be hilarious to reenact some of the more graphic scenes with actual teenagers. The result, not surprisingly, is jail time.
But then how do we contend with some of the films that helped shape these ideas but are still considered classics? And how do we contend with the fact no one took the time to explore whether the debauched sex comedies from their youth were indirectly responsible for teaching a generation that it was OK to stick their genitals in freshly baked apple pies?
But then the other side is – even if the films caused bad behavior, is that necessarily their fault? So long as the film accomplished the goals it set out to and found some sort of emotional honesty, then it can’t possibly be a bad movie. Besides, I’ve never been a proponent of blaming a film or any piece of media for someone’s actions. If we’re going to go down that path, it will end with us accusing Martin Scorsese of trying to assassinate Ronald Reagan.
But it is fair to evaluate if a film that is primarily going to be seen by younger people to shape their expectations of the future. And, as we’re have a much-delayed national conversation about sex during people’s formative years and how, far too often, people take advantage of people who can’t properly consent.
A discussion of how well the following four films have aged should be a part of that conversation. We should talk about the impact these films had and how we should examine them to see if the jokes they’re making won’t work on a modern audience.
Animal House – dir. John Landis, 1978
National Lampoon’s Animal House seems to be the first film mentioned when anyone wants to discuss “problematic” comedies. And yes, there are a few moments that would not be attempted by any filmmaker today. Yet most people who complain about the scenes of John Belushi spying on a sorority house or sitting under the bleachers to look up cheerleaders’ skirts have missed the joke.
Animal House is a free-wheeling comedy about Delta House at Faber College. Every Delta brother is a debauched burnout. They’re poor academics, they’re not respected on the campus at all, and Dean Wormer wants nothing more than to expel them. They end up pulling a massive prank during the homecoming parade after they’re removed from the school, but it seems trivial to describe the plot.
The joke isn’t that the mayhem they caused is something that should be celebrated – although it is undeniably satisfying to watch the Deltas play pranks on the upper-class twits that make up the Omega house. The point is that these kids took what they learned and still managed to become sane adults. One of the biggest laughs comes from the end, where we see these same weirdos that we watched drink their cares away becoming respected professionals in their field.
The film also has many great jokes at the Omega’s expense that would fit right into any modern comedy. One early scene has Flounder and Larry being stuck with the “undesirable” pledges at Omega. All of them happen to be minorities or have a disability. It’s clearly a moment that’s meant to make the Omegas look like the awful people they are. The scene in which the Deltas go to see Otis Day at a black club showed the white people as the outsiders who were utterly clueless about how to act. And, despite taking place at a time when the Civil Rights movement was getting started, no white character makes any inappropriate comments about it.
The female characters are also, for the most part, treated well. They’re allowed to comment on the men around them in the same way men talk about their desires. Karen Allen, for example, constantly questions her relationship with Boon. Other women openly tell the Deltas to “go away” when their flirting doesn’t work and, compared to other films on this list, there’s surprisingly little nudity. Even the young cashier that Larry dates is clearly the more dominant one who can express her interest in him. Besides, Larry backs away from taking advantage of her while she’s passed out.
Finally, we should talk about Belushi and his iconic performance. Yes, he does play a character who drinks constantly, destroys guitars, and barely seems to know where he is at any given moment. He’s become the most iconic character in the film, so many believe that he’s the character that’s meant to exemplify the film’s themes. That’s not the case. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time and when he does, the other characters treat him with skepticism at best. They openly call him a pig and wonder what motivates him to say the dumbest things they’ve heard. (“Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!”) Even the peeping tom scene is a joke at his expense. He’s the only character willing to do something so perverted. The fact no one notices him, even while they’re looking right at him and when he’s making too much noise to be ignored, is what we’re meant to remember.
Animal House takes the idea of “stupid college kids trying to find their place in the world” and runs with it. They manage to pull off some memorable pranks, but that’s not what defines their lives. They all leave college and find success. It’s the people who demand success to soon because of their family connections, like the Omegas, that are punished for their hubris. That is a timeless message.
American Pie – dir. Paul Weitz, 1999
American Pie is another film that most audience don’t understand. People once again decided that the terrible characters like Stifler are meant to be exemplars of teenagers and that the only thing worthwhile in the film is all the young women ready to remove their tops at a moment’s notice.
That’s completely wrong. At its core, American Pie is a sweet coming of age comedy about teenagers of both genders who are figuring out exactly what it means to have a relationship.
Yes, there are several moments of nudity and a scene of a teenager humping an apple pie. But most of the film is very much influenced by Kevin Smith’s indie films. The most shocking part is the honest dialogue, where men compare their sex lives and women are openly allowed to talk about how their boyfriends aren’t satisfying them.
I mention Kevin Smith because American Pie could have been directed by him and there would have been very few changes. Smith’s films were marked by people coming of age who still clung onto childish views and expressed them in the frankest manner possible. American Pie works much the same way. The characters can’t get any real advice from their parents because they’re either too oblivious to address it or, in Eugene Levy’s case, end up making the situation far more awkward than it needs to be.
But even though the driving item behind the film is a pact that all of the main characters will lose their virginity by prom, none of them take any extraordinary or cliched measures to do so. In fact, it’s something that encourages them to meet new people and really find out what matters to them.
Also, yes, there has been a lot of discussion around the scene in which a European exchange student named Nadia is tricked into appearing on a webcam where men watch her masturbate. But the joke isn’t on Nadia. Rather, the joke is on the pie humping Jim, who embarrasses himself in front of his entire school after he…how do I put this…departs the car while it’s still in motion. Twice. Obviously, this is something that could not be played straight today. But even at the time, the filmmakers don’t punish Nadia for masturbating on camera. Rather, they punish Jim for his scheme.
Plus, we need to talk about Stifler. His character somehow found an audience, but no one seems to remember that Stifler was meant to be a pathetic jerk. The film certainly treats him like one. He’s the only one of the main characters who doesn’t end up with a partner at the end of the film. In fact, he walks in on one of his friends having sex with his mother. Everyone he treats badly ends up in a far better place than him. Stifler remains an idiot man child while everyone else learns something about adult relationships.
American Pie is more intelligent and far sweeter movie than it gets credit for. The characters – male and female – are not only allowed to be honest about their feelings but can explore their sexuality. The sequels and spin offs stumbled because the filmmakers got lazy and figured the only thing anyone wanted to see was boobs. They missed the point of the original, which is that sex isn’t always the goal.
Back to School – dir. Alan Metter, 1986
Rodney Dangerfield was a diamond who was frequently treated like an old hunk of feldspar. I believe he had a statement about the respect given to him, but I can’t quite remember what it was.
Anyway, after starting his film career with Caddyshack, Dangerfield was very in demand in the 1980s. Most of his films saw him playing a variation of his Caddyshack character – a rich man child who was obsessed with youthful endeavors. Which makes sense; if you’ve found what works, why try to change the formula?
The basic idea – a successful businessman who goes to college as a way to encourage his son – is a very typical ‘80s comedy plot. Also typical were the jokes no one would try today. Dangerfield runs a chain of big and tall clothing shop, which leads to a lot of fat jokes. There’s only one scene of explicit nudity, where Dangerfield walks in on a woman taking a shower and proceeds to make a quip about her body.
This film exemplifies the male-dominated attitude most ‘80s comedies possessed. The women in the movie are conquests for the male characters. We have Dangerfield’s son attempting to attract a Brooke Shields look-alike (it’s actually Terry Farrell from Hellraiser 3) and Rodney Dangerfield is attempting to seduce one of his professors. There’s also a strange subplot with Dangerfield’s economics professors, in which they fight over each other’s business tactics.
Why this conflict exists is beyond me. Wouldn’t an economics professor want to pick the brain of someone who managed to build a clothing empire. The film is at its funniest when it does things no one else would have attempted, like getting Kurt Vonnegut to film a cameo. Also, Oingo Boingo shows up in this movie to play “Dead Man’s Party.”
If it seems like I’m struggling to figure out what to say about Back to School, that’s because I don’t understand what it was meant to artistically do. It was practically a paint-by-numbers comedy that hit all the major points comedies had to hit at the time. The stuff about how work would only make you lose your soul, about how it was far better to question the system, and about how the spirit of youthful rebellion should be kept. But it doesn’t really have anything to say about any of these themes. It just sort of presents them as a comfort food.
I do like Rodney Dangerfield. He was someone who could make the dumbest borscht belt joke sound like a Bill Hicks routine. After decades of performing, Dangerfield had found what he was best at and perfectly translated his act into films. But ultimately, the scripts he was given were not capable of keeping up with his energy. Dangerfield was at his best when he was given a rough outline and told to go have fun. But Back to School tried to fit him into too specific a persona. Dangerfield played a good game but he was never allowed to truly be himself.
Ultimately, Back to School feels endlessly stuck in first gear. I like Rodney Dangerfield, but I hate it when comedians don’t challenge themselves. Back to School feels like Rodney Dangerfield on auto pilot. Besides, the narrative choices made by the movie could not be played straight today. Everyone would have to reference how weird it is that Dangerfield decided to go back to school, and how it’s a reflection of his massive wealth that he’ll be able to cruise right through care free. None of that is present in Back to School. It’s another slobs vs snobs comedy that’s only remembered because Dangerfield is the one pushing everyone’s buttons.
Van Wilder – dir. Walt Becker, 2002
Ironically, it’s the most recent film in this article that’s aged the poorest. National Lampoon’s Van Wilder took everything that came before it and learned the opposite lesson that it was supposed to learn. Instead of recognizing that Animal House was about a phase in people’s lives, it celebrated the debauched attitude of the Delta House. It treats its female characters very badly, it treats the existence of minorities as a joke, and it treats sex in the same childish way that everyone accused American Pie of treating sex. It’s exactly the sort of teen comedy that gives teen comedy a bad name.
Van Wilder follows a student who has been at college for seven years – the same amount of time Bluto from Animal House stayed in college. He refuses to graduate because of his status as the big man on campus. He is challenged by a promising journalism student played by Tara Reid, which is in no way a joke. His wealthy dad cuts off his tuition, so he’s forced to raise money to stay in college however he can. This leads to…nothing. He maintains his lifestyle until he’s almost expelled and only then does he decide to finish his course work for graduation.
Ryan Reynolds, who plays the title character, did not find a film that matched his talents or ambitions until Deadpool. He plays Van Wilder in the same way he later played Merc with the Mouth. Reynolds exists on a completely different plane of existence from everyone else. He’s a sort of genie who has a supernatural ability to make people realize their lives are far too complicated. But he never acknowledges the impact this has on him.
The premise of Van Wilder may sound like a deep analysis on the people who peak at college fraternities but end up in a dead-end job. That would be a fascinating movie. But no – Van Wilder is more content to show Wilder barely acknowledging the problems with his life. So, what if his dad cuts him off? He barely takes notice and instead just starts charging for parties. So, what if he actually acknowledges his attraction to a woman who hates him? She falls in love with him by the film’s end with barely any effort on his part. So, what if he’s expelled? The entire student body wants to keep him around and even the economics professor that hates him votes to keep him in school.
It’s exactly the sort of dishonesty that Animal House avoided. The loser Deltas grew up. We get no information about where Van Wilder will end up or if he’ll be truly happy with his life.
That’s the biggest flaw with Van Wilder, but there are many. Kal Penn’s Taj is a pathetic attempt at the race baiting humor that was barely acceptable when Peter Sellers did it. He wants nothing more than to have sex so he can say that he’s had sex. This leads to a scene where he lights his own back on fire but set up is not nearly as funny as it sounds. Tara Reid’s character follows the whole “I have a bad unsupportive boyfriend, so it’s time to find someone new” character arc, which was played to death in the 1980s. And, of course, there’s the John Waters-esque scene in which Van Wilder uses dog semen, straight from the source, to fill pastries that he feeds to his rival. Part of the appeal of Waters is the fact that you’re actually witnessing the depravity he puts on display, and the fact that depravity meant something for the characters. Here, the act itself is meant to garner a laugh.
Van Wilder is exactly the film that people think of when they hold their noses at teen comedies and demand more inclusivity. Van Wilder plays like something written by a 13-year-old who believes maturity looks like the videos with the pizza delivery man he saw on PornHub.