Dir: Jesse Dylan. US. 2003. 96mins.

The enthusiastic raunchiness of its gags aside, the third instalment of the American Pie franchise feels like the return of a favourite TV sitcom: the characters are enjoyably familiar and while the set up has changed a little the comedy still has energy to spare. Matching the performances of the first two films - the 1999 original did $234m worldwide and the 2001 sequel $288m - may not be easy now that the gross-out comedy trend is over. But Universal, which opens American Wedding in the US this weekend (in some territories it will be known as American Pie: The Wedding), should nevertheless be able to pull in plenty of teens and twentysomethings from the franchise's loyal fan base. And UIP could do even better from international territories, which produced more than half of the first film's worldwide take and almost as big a slice of the second film's total.

Whether there will be a fourth franchise entry remains to be seen. American Pie is billed as "The thrilling climax of the American Pie saga"; it may be that only a spectacular box office success for the new film will be enough to keep the series going.

Most of the leads from the first two films are back for the third outing (though supporting players Chris Klein, Shannon Elizabeth, Tara Reid, Mena Suvari and Natasha Lyonne are all absent). Perhaps even more importantly, franchise originator Adam Herz once again wrote the script, ensuring the kind of continuity of character and tone often missing from second and third sequels.

Three years after the last instalment, Jason Biggs' good-natured Jim and Alyson Hannigan's quirky Michelle have graduated from college and are ready to marry. Helping them prepare for the big wedding are Jim's well-meaning Dad (regular Levy) and pals Kevin and Finch (Nicholas and Thomas, both back from the earlier films). Threatening to disrupt the proceedings, however, is psycho-dude Stifler (Scott, from the earlier films and Bulletproof Monk), who immediately starts planning a raucous bachelor party for the apprehensive Jim.

The build-up to the wedding gives the film a readymade structure and provides for a couple of on-going plot lines, like Jim's campaign to win over Michelle's parents (Fred Willard and Deborah Rush) and the contest between old rivals Stifler and Finch to woo Michelle's sister Cadence (Jones, last seen in Anger Management). The marriage theme also helps bring out some of the sweetness and coming-of-age sentimentality that has always been part of the films' appeal.

Like the first two features, however, this instalment works primarily as a series of comic set-pieces that are nicely performed by the ensemble cast and ably staged by music video director Jesse Dylan (whose only previous feature was modest comedy success How High). Some of the set-pieces echo scenes from the earlier films, but others - like Stifler's impromptu dance display in a gay bar - find new, and sometimes very funny ways, to push the gross-out envelope.

The absence of some of the earlier films' female cast members gives this outing more of a male slant (despite her popularity in TV's Buffy The Vampire Slayer Hannigan is curiously underused here) and puts more emphasis on Biggs' performance as Jim and Scott's as Stifler. Scott, in particular, dominates many of the film's comic scenes.

Prod cos: Universal Pictures, Zide/Perry Entertainment, LivePlanet
US dist:
Int'l dist:
Exec prods:
Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz, Louis G Friedman
Warren Zide, Craig Perry, Chris Moore, Adam Herz, Chris Bender
Lloyd Ahern
Prod des:
Clayton Hartley
Stuart Pappe
Christophe Beck
Main cast:
Jason Biggs, Seann William Scott, Alyson Hannigan, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Thomas Ian Nicholas, January Jones, Eugene Levy