Allow me to begin with a surprising revelation, followed by a qualification. The surprise is that American Reunion, despite the seemingly insurmountable difficulty of being the first theatrical American Pie picture in nine long years (discounting a canonically dubious franchise of spin-offs released direct-to-video and featuring none of the main cast), is not just the best of the three sequels, but, to these eyes, better than even American Pie itself. The qualification is that, firstly, I don't much like American Pie (long-time readers are probably not shocked by this news), and that I had not seen any of the films in the series until about a week ago; and this is an important qualification because American Pie is one of Those Teenager Movies, the kind that is meant to be seen and loved by people more or less the same age as the protagonists; American Reunion is about early-30s anomie, and this means that I am, as of today and about a week ago as well, primed to "get" the newest film in the series more than I "got" the first.

Let us also pause to note that, while I have anointed Reunion as the "best" of the American Pie franchise, that's a whole different thing than calling it "objectively good", and this whole matter of qualitatively ranking the four movies is sort of the work of an insane person; though what is undoubtedly true, and comforting, is that Reunion is at the very least watchable and adequate and therefore rises above the horrendous American Wedding, which had previously seemed to close the story out all the way back in 2003.

For the newcomers or the easily-addled, allow me to set the stage: once upon a time, in East Grand Falls, Michigan, there were five male friends: Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs), Chris "Oz" Ostreicher (Chris Klein), Kevin Myers (Thomas Ian Nicholas), Paul Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), and Steven Stifler (Seann William Scott), and they had many sexual misadventures in high school and college, ending when Jim married nymphomaniac band geek Michelle Flaherty (Alyson Hannigan). In the summer of 2012 - making American Reunion a science-fiction movie - these folks all get together for their 13th high school reunion (a forced, glossed-over line explains why this happened), and find that they are now old. Though sexual misadventures still happen, and they take largely the same form that they did over and over again in the before times: Jim is humiliated and then consoled poorly by his loving but uncomfortably frank dad (Eugene Levy), Stifler attempts to get laid in the raunchiest ways possible, and the other three guys provide just enough varying personality and subplots that Biggs gets plenty of chances to relax in his trailer.

Unoriginality isn't merely a non-issue; it's the reason American Reunion was made. It is something like Before Sunset for people who prefer semen jokes to aching, elliptical romantic dramas (and shame on Hollywood for thinking you can't combine the two): we've been away from the characters long enough, and they've been apart for long enough, that there's an inherent interest just in checking in and seeing how everybody's changed, reminiscing about old times rather than necessarily making new ones - I will confess that, insofar as it is content to wallow in the past and urgently, needlessly reference every little last thing that happened ten years ago, American Reunion matches my experience of the dark days when one jumps from being a twentysomething to a thirtysomething rather perfectly.

Of course, American Reunion isn't Before Sunset: if we have any doubt of that fact after the scene where Stifler shits in some rowdy teenagers' beer cooler, it is surely gone by the time Stifler goes down on a fat woman and comes up with his face covered in sticky pubes. And for writing that phrase, I apologise, but I think it's important that we make it clear what kind of movie this is: exactl the same as the first three. Nowadays, American Pie is a damn elder statesman of R-rated gross-out sex comedies, and it has inspired many successors, be they as enthusiastically lewd as The Hangover or as relatively classy as The 40-Year-Old Virgin. American Reunion does not ignore the new normal that its older siblings did so much to establish - in an early scene, all the teasing of three movies culminates in a shot of what is undeniably Jason Biggs's penis, finally making its onscreen debut, because penises are in comedies now, and honestly the whole movie does seem like a bit of a downhill race after that, because where can you go from finally showcasing Little Jim, who has been the second- or third-most important character in the series to date? - but at the same time, it's hijinks-ey tone feels weirdly old-fashioned; it is a late-'90s movie made in the early-'10s, is all, more anxious to cater to the over-25 crowd than the under-25 crowd, which has an appealing kind of honesty to it, even though it's irresponsible business.

It helps that the new film was written and directed by the team of Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg, the authors of the Harold & Kumar films, and the directors of the second (and, admittedly, worst), Escape from Guantanamo Bay. For the H&K series is frat comedy at its smartest and best, trying in an odd but typically successful way to locate the humanity beneath the riffing about pot and sex and fluids. They try to work something similar with American Reunion, and what's startling is that in a lot of places, they even manage to make things click: the way that Jim's own fatherhood had made him subtly and unconsciously more forgiving of his dad's weird approach of parenting; the deep revulsion of the fully-fledged adult at seeing teenagers who act just exactly like he used to; and so on. In a SPOILER ALERT touch that isn't, by itself, terribly great screenwriting, but in the context of these dipshit R-rated comedies is practically Strindberg, Kevin has a wife (Charlene Amoia), who makes him watch girly reality shoes and cook; and then at the reunion, he meets his old flame Vicky (Tara Reid), and realises he still loves her, and what does he do? He stays with his wife, because he loves her more. In a post-Hangover sex comedy! It's like men are civilised creatures, or some such. SPOILERS OVER, SORRY

This all sounds pretty great, and Hurwitz & Hayden do all they can to put it over (Reunion is by far the most technically competent of the American Pies), and the only problem is that the film still just isn't very good. And a lot of that has to do with the mere fact that no matter how much thoughtfulness about the fluctuations of personal identity that happen between 22 and 31 years of age, with all the children and spouses and careers, that you put into an American Pie movie, you still have an American Pie movie on your hands, and there are really only so many different ways you can rephrase "men enjoy masturbating even when it is inconvenient to do so" in four movies, particularly when the fourth enjoys an overlong 113-minute running time. Crude humor, like anything else, can be done intelligently or it can be done sloppily, and the American Pie franchise as a whole doesn't spend enough time on the right side of that divide: whenever Levy does anything, it gets over there, or when Jennifer Coolidge as Stifler's mom shows up (she is, happily, given much more time in this movie than in her previous cameos, and most of it with Levy, to boot).

And sure, the filmmakers try to tweak as much as they can, but there's still the American Pie cast to contend with, and no matter what works, it's always brought right back down by an almost uniformly bad slate of performances. It's not, I think, a coincidence that only Hannigan has had a truly estimable career since 2003, and she, of course, had Buffy the Vampire Slayer propping her up; these are really, just not very talented people, though only Tara Reid really sinks to truly awful (so did Shannon Elizabeth, but she's limited to a one-scene cameo here). Still, "not truly awful" is hardly praise, and none of the actors is possessed of much in the way of range, and if there was ever any charm at all to Seann William Scott's spastic man-child thing, it was always and forever lost on me.

We're talking shades of degree here: the difference between "a basically decent movie" and "not a particularly decent movie"; it's still a tired franchise trying and failing to reignite. And at least it has something that sort of looks like a brain inside of all fucking and flop-sweating; the best moments throughout the franchise have always been the ones that remember that the characters are human beings, and American Reunion does have its share of those. Not more than its share. But for a retrograde sex comedy, it's better than a shot of jism in your eye.