Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, two of the most subversive writer-directors in the realm of the R-rated youth comedy, have been friends since they were in high school together in Randolph, N.J. Their “Harold & Kumar” franchise, which revolves around an Asian-American and an Indian-American odd couple (and to some extent, their Jewish pals, nicknamed “Manny” and “Shevitz”), transcends the stoner genre to become a sharp satire about race and cultural stereotyping. When Shevitz (a k a Goldstein, played by David Krumholtz) converts to Christianity in 2011’s “A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas,” for example, “He’s talking about how amazing it is to be Christian in the most Jewish way you’ve ever heard,” Schlossberg said, laughing with Hurwitz during a recent interview at the Four Seasons Hotel.
About two years ago, when Schlossberg and Hurwitz, now 33 and 34, respectively, were asked to reboot the “American Pie” franchise with the highly anticipated “American Reunion,” their multicultural options were more limited than in the “Harold & Kumar” films. It’s their first venture into the series originally created by writer Adam Herz and directors Paul and Chris Weitz; this fourth film revisits the libidinous East Great Falls class of 1999, with the culturally Jewish Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) and friends, who are probably best remembered for their pact to lose their virginity before graduation. We catch up with Jim, now married to former band-camp geek Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), Jim’s dad (Eugene Levy) and buddies such as the perpetually immature Stifler.
“East Great Falls is not an incredibly diverse town, but that being said, we couldn’t help but get in a couple of Jewish shout-outs,” Hurwitz said. “Coming from the ‘Harold & Kumar’ movies, where we’re constantly making racial or religious jokes, it was tough for us not to constantly do that.”
And so, Jim encourages his widowed father to try JDate, even trimming his bushy eyebrows for his online photo; when Jim asks how his dad and mom kept their sex life alive with small kids, the reply is, “Why do you think you went to Hebrew school three times a week?”
It’s all in the context of how Jim has typically related to his dad over three previous films’ worth of sweet but cringe-worthy moments. (Who can forget Jim’s mortification when Levy walks in on him, in the first movie, getting fresh with a pie?) “There’s a closeness and a certain Jewish awkwardness in their relationship,” Hurwitz said. “They speak in a way that Jews from our world tend to speak, where there is a certain level of banter, arguing, neurosis — and way too much information.”
The 1999 sleeper hit “American Pie” was a revelation to Hurwitz and Schlossberg, who at the time were pleasing their Jewish parents by attending the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago, respectively, while penning a semiautobiographical film, titled “Filthy,” in which the leads “sounded like young people talking about what young people talk about,” Schlossberg said. Hurwitz offered a hint: “Even good Jewish boys think about sex.”
When Hurwitz saw a trailer for “American Pie,” however, his first response was to call Schlossberg and lament, “They made our movie.” “Pie” combined the kind of bawdiness with heart they aspired to in their own writing. “It also connected with Jewish youth because Eugene Levy is the quintessential Jewish father in the sense that he’s not puritanical,” Schlossberg said. “And while they didn’t say Jason’s character was Jewish in the first film, Jews knew it,” Hurwitz added. “Jason’s character, Jim, is trying to be a nice Jewish boy, but he makes himself constantly a shlimazel. Everything bad that can happen to him does; every time he tries to do something, it just goes wrong. And that’s classic Jewish comedy.”
The budding writer-directors saw the movie as many as 100 times, they say, and routinely quoted lines from it, so after their “Harold & Kumar” films became a success, it was only natural that Universal would come to them for “American Reunion.” “We never for a split second thought we wouldn’t get the job,” Hurwitz said. “We knew ‘American Pie’ better than anyone, and we had created a franchise in a similar vein, so if they didn’t hire us, they’d be making a horrible business decision.”
The filmmakers did not attend their own high school reunion, but weddings where old friends congregated — including Hurwitz’s 2007 nuptials — provided some ideas for “American Reunion.” “People were all in different phases of their lives,” Schlossberg said. Some were married, some single, some successful, some frustrated. “We knew, obviously, that Jim and Michelle were married, because we saw them get hitched in ‘American Wedding,’ and we figured they’d now have a kid,” Hurwitz said. “So immediately our minds went to, ‘OK, what are the awkward situations that can emerge when you have a child scampering around the house?’ Since Jim is a guy who is best when he’s sexually frustrated, we asked ourselves what could happen that would be to great comedic effect.” Suffice it to say that fans of the iconic pie scene from the first film will not be disappointed.
One hilarious sequence in “American Reunion” features Jim’s bar mitzvah video, in which we see the notorious prankster Stifler yank off Jim’s tallit, taunting, “I stole your Jewish scarf.”
But while shooting that scene in a church dressed up as a synagogue, the filmmakers were distressed to discover that the crew had failed to procure a tallit. “Props thought it was wardrobe’s responsibility, and wardrobe thought it was props,” Schlossberg said. “We only had a few hours to shoot, and we needed a tallis, obviously, to make the joke work.”
After unsuccessfully trying to stitch napkins together to create the garment, the filmmakers borrowed one of the church’s vestments and embellished it with blue trimmings. “So we had a tallis,” Hurwitz said, “but it was secretly a Catholic scarf.”
“American Reunion” opens April 6.