The screening for "American Pie" was so athrob with Our Wonderful Youth that I could not tell, exactly, where the movie stopped and the audience began.

This was actually a little frightening. The movie proved to be nothing more (or less) than an encomium to agitated hormones, a paean to the ebb and flow of blood chemicals, an anthem written in the vocabulary of firing synapses, glandular secretions and drumroll heartbeats.

It watches four senior high school boys try to Lose It (you know what I mean) before or on prom night, and the kids around me seemed to be stirred by this quest so profoundly that I thought in a moment of tribal bonding they'd actually turn on those of us who were old enough to shave and devour us alive, chanting EAT THE PIG! EAT THE PIG!

Needless to say, I survived with all limbs in place and functional, free to oink another day or so at least. The same can't be said for the movie, which is completely raunchy, sometimes funny, usually dreary and always dysfunctional.

It takes us back to the moment in time in a boy's life when all existence has devolved to a single issue--and it wasn't getting into college. It was (shhhhh! don't tell!) s-x! If you'd never had it, it assumed mythic proportions, an ascension into heaven, a Shangri-La of the senses, an ecstasy of lubrication. That's what they said, anyhow. And as usual, they lied.

It was much better than that.

So in this movie, which re-creates the pre-sexual intensity of yearning with a clinician's acuity, four disappointed boy virgins look with horror on the end of high school and make a pact that they will score before they graduate--or else. Or else what? Or else nothing, as it turns out; if the movie means to use the pact as an organizing device, it fails to do so with any usefulness at all. Nothing is at stake. Who cares if they get it done or not?

Each of the four, who attend a white-bread suburban school that reminded me of the one I attended in the early '60s, represents an archetype: Oz (Chris Klein) is an insensitive lacrosse warrior who decides that once he learns to fake sensitivity he'll be in like Flynn; Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is a guy who, although he has a steady belle, keeps getting thrown out at home; Finch (Eddie Kay Thomas) is a kind of wispy intellectual, vaguely effeminate but quite sly; and finally, Jim (Jason Biggs), who looks too much like Adam Sandler for anybody's good.

Jim happens to be a chronic masturbator, which sets up "American Pie's" most persistently amusing comic theme: the inability of adolescent boys to keep their hands on the wheel or the bat or the computer keyboard. Those darn fingers want to do some walking and they wander inevitably south. Thus Jim, when informed that a certain thing most resembles warm apple pie, is so overwhelmed with lust when he sees a warm apple pie on the kitchen table, that he . . .


I'm not making this up!

As it turns out, Philip Roth handled the same topic with more wit years back in "Portnoy's Complaint," and a legendary "Seinfeld" episode did it with far more humor. This scene, and another one involving a use for beer that the Budweiser frogs never thought of (well, maybe the "Er" one did, as he looked pretty skanky), are what might be called water-cooler moments, or, given the target audience, mall moments. That is, they are so outrageous that they demand to be talked about, and when described demand to be witnessed. That translates to box office.

Only a moralist would point out that "American Pie" essentially depends for its prosperity on that audience it is specifically forbidden by MPAA code from admitting. Which is to say that it is built on the cynical assumption that theaters no longer bother to enforce ratings. But don't lose any sleep over it--truth is, the film will damage no one who sees it, since most young men have already discovered masturbation, and it might actually help the sales of baked goods.

As for the rest of it, it's mildly amusing rarely, rather amateurish mostly. Each boy learns something on his quest for ecstasy--a mild little domestic cop-out that steers the movie, smutty though it may be, toward the high ground of bourgeois propriety.

But the director, Paul Weitz, can never manage to bring his actors beyond the threshold of spontaneity. They don't build any comic rhythms and the scenes never have punch lines, only end points; the movie has no real narrative arc or escalating tension. The girls, in particular, are reduced to ciphers with pouty little mouths.

Of the four boys, it runs like this: Klein good (he was in "Election"), Biggs funny, Nicholas uninteresting and Thomas dreary.

"American Pie" takes the Chevy to the levee but the levee is dry and the movie is empty.

American Pie (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for scenes involving autoerotism--and sex in cars, too.

CAPTION: Eugene Levy and Jason Biggs in the oversexed and overrated "American Pie."