Nothin’ wrong with a little nostalgia

by Andrea Shea / Pop Columnist • April 25, 2012

The line for the advanced screening of American Reunion, the fourth and likely final installment of the American Pie series (barring those bastardized American Pie Presents straight-to-video runts of the litter), was so long that AMC Loews Boston Common had to turn people away because its theater had reached capacity. 

Attendees that evening were the stalwarts of the franchise. And by the time the credits rolled, every last patron of that screening was grinning ear to ear as they sang along to folk singer Matt Nathanson’s cover of “Laid,” myself included.

This, I thought, was a great movie. And as my fellow advanced screening-goers exited the theater alongside me, their happy chatter seemed to indicate that we were all in agreement.

But I, like all the other lifelong fans of the series who sat with me in that advanced screening, had been watching American Reunion with Nostalgia Goggles. You know that languid haze you feel settle upon you when presented with a relic of your past? The fuzzy familiarity that envelops you like a childhood security blanket? That’s the feeling of Nostalgia Goggles slipping over your perceptions.

Obviously no one was expecting American Reunion to win any Oscars, but I was taken aback by the 43 percent rating the film had received on RottenTomatoes.com.

But when I consider what had made me like the movie so much, I came up with many of the same praises I’d heard on my way out of the theater after the advanced screening: They got all the characters back for a hell of a “where are they now?” The whole arc of the movie echoed the original teenage hijinks we all knew and loved, and the music — oh, the music — ripped directly from the first three American Pie movies that just worked so well in the background of a high school reunion. Anyone who didn’t love the original run wouldn’t find value in these things.

College-aged students are particularly susceptible to Nostalgia Goggles, as they stand on the precipice of adulthood and often gaze longingly back at their youth. And as children of the 90s, everything from Rocko’s Modern Life to Backstreet Boys is a trigger warning for “aww”s of wistful adoration, perhaps with the sole exception of the Furby (thanks to Emerson’s alumnus Richard Levy for that abominiation). But Rocko was more than a little ridiculous in retrospect, and BSB’s reunion tour served as proof that not all things get better with age.

Yet, most people my age still know all the words to “Larger Than Life” and will happily belt them at the drop of a hat. Because that’s what Nostalgia Goggles do to you: They create an inexplicably fierce and enduring devotion to something that might be great, but more often than not is wholly mediocre, merely because of the memory with which that something is associated.

The American Pie series fits particularly well into the Nostalgia Goggle framework, as it offers an idealized version of a widely shared experience. East Great Falls wasn’t the high school we attended, but rather the one we all wish we’d attended. If only we knew a guy who stripped naked for the hot foreign exchange girl on webcam. If only we could be so funny, so brazen, so utterly Hollywood ridiculous. But most of us lead plain lives in comparison to Jim, Finch, Kevin, Oz, and the Stifmeister himself, so we idolized them in our youth and look back on their antics with fondness in the present.

There are two ways to view American Reunion — as a film, and as an object of yearning and reminiscence to be viewed with the Goggles strapped on tight. Despite the overwhelmingly apathetic reviews from a number of critics and casual moviegoers, the movie’s true success is in its role as the quintessence of nostalgia. 

Fans flocked to theaters hoping not for the hallmarks of Great American Cinema, of which it has none, but for the characters and references we recognized, for the winks and the nods and the loving embrace of familiarity that nostalgia brings. No sequel in recent memory hit quite so many bullseyes in resonating the tone and feel of the original trilogy without seeming blatant or trite. And if the promo poster — poorly photoshopped to mimic the original American Pie’s — is any indication, that was the film’s intention all along.