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Pitiful writing plagues mediocre 'American Pie'

It was about this time last year when "There's Something About Mary," an irreverently hyperbolic comedy turned Hollywood on its head with its vast array of gross-outs and genre spoofs. "American Pie," the directorial debut of Paul Weitz, is this summer's attempt to mirror that winning combination. Unfortunately, it only gets half of the combination right.

As anyone who has seen one of the myriad previews shown for the movie in its hype overdrive, the film follows the follies of four male high school seniors trying to lose their virginity in the few weeks before prom.

What follows is the same tried-and-true formula that has qualified as a plot in movies ranging from "Porky's" to "Can't Hardly Wait."

But here, writer Adam Herz (in his first work) has added a slew of uninspired gross-out jokes regarding various bodily fluids that any viewer can see coming from a mile away.

There is an even greater problem with the personality of "Pie": Herz shifts the emphasis of the film from zany teenage antics to more sensitive themes. This is the cinematic equivalent of writing a thesis with a conclusion that completely contradicts the body of the paper.

Each of the four leads in the movie has his own distinct dilemma. Jim (Jason Biggs), for example, is the most desperate of the bunch. His desire for gratification leads him in the direction of a home-baked pastry (hence the title) and a potentially riotous sequence in which he broadcasts his bedroom shenanigans over the Internet.

That scene, while funny for a while, goes on for several beats too long and ends up feeling a little stale.

Weitz has this problem with many of the film's scenes: he just does not know when to quit.

Biggs is at his best when allowing his body to do the talking for him. He proves to be rather adept at self-deprecating physical comedy. At other times, however, his line readings feel flat, and his emotions seem forced.

Oz (Chris Klein) is the most sensitive of the bunch. A star lacrosse player, he joins the glee club with the hope of finding a soprano mate.

Klein perfects the same vapid charm that he displayed in this spring's "Election." His performance is bad; it just is not as revelatory as it would have been in the hands of a more seasoned actor.

It has been a long time since audiences have seen Thomas Ian Nicholas, who plays Kevin. Nicholas, whose last leading role was 1993's "Rookie of the Year."

Kevin is the only one who currently has a girlfriend, Vicky (played by Tara Reid of "Urban Legends"). Nicholas seems genuinely comfortable in Kevin's shoes, and understands the complexity that governs his character's behavior. Too bad Herz and Weitz do not share that understanding.

Reid does an admirable job with her likable but poorly drawn character. Reid and Nicholas are good on-screen together. They win over the amateurish writing in several scenes with tender aplomb.

There are several actors who stand out in minor roles. Alyson Hannigan (TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), for example, imbues some much-needed life to the later scenes of the film. Her character's sudden transformation provoked both the biggest shock and the biggest laughs from the audience.

As hard as they try, Weitz and Hertz just could not find that balance for the rest of "American Pie."

Grade: C+