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The Rookie

Photo by Ted Soqui
ONE OF THE SAVING GRACES OF THE movie business is that no matter how wrong it manages to go, the problem is ultimately the solution. For every bloated $20 million star mucking up the multiplexes, planned obsolescence dictates that a next generation is waiting in the wings, ready to take the star's place at a fraction of the cost. An excellent candidate on the verge of breaking from the pack is Chris Klein, star of the American Pie ensemble, as well as the still underappreciated Election -- a farm-fresh, affable youngster who seems as if he was genetically engineered for stardom, and is being fast-tracked to become the new Keanu.

American Pie, for those of you beyond the reach of trailers, is one of those new squishy teen comedies that "tests well" -- no shit in a blender, perhaps, but plenty of jizz in a beer and uproarious diarrhea. The title, contrary to logic, has nothing to do with either American Graffiti or "The Day the Music Died," but is rather a poor man's mnemonic for the liver scene from Portnoy's Complaint, re-configured for pastry. It's as if the marketing geniuses of the early '70s, in their competitive fervor, had rejected the title Deliverance in favor of the zingier Ned Beatty's Shiny Butt.

Largely isolated from the ranker gags on display, Klein continues to perpetuate the persona he established as Election's guileless jock, whose dim-bulb nescience was tempered by a natural penchant for comedy and an almost alien sweetness -- an exotic, hothouse hybrid of wholesomeness and big-dog enthusiasm that seems positively otherworldly in these cynical times. Election director Alexander Payne, who can take exclusive credit for discovering the then­high school senior when he literally ran into him coming out of a weight room after varsity football practice, found the mixture refreshing.

"He's a very canny person, and much more aware and reflective than he can lead you to believe sometimes. But he's also very funny, and that's the thing. I ran into some people who knew him in high school and they remembered him as this guy with a goofy, odd sense of humor. His character is like Prince Mishkin in Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, a guy who genuinely represents Christian ideals, and who doesn't have an evil bone in his body and doesn't see evil in others. Dostoyevsky says the only destiny of someone like that is to be victimized. Just not in Election."

Klein seems to have come by this persona free of painful deliberation. Preternaturally nice and polite to a fault, he seems well-adjusted, close to his family, complimentary of everyone he's ever met -- the director of American Pie was "great"; the casting people at Universal were "fantastic." He's more than willing to pick up the check until it's explained to him that's not how it works, and would probably give his interviewer a ride home if asked.

"When I think about my high school experience," he says, bemused resignation tempering his natural wide-eyed countenance, "I'm not sure how it could have been better. I played football, and I swam on the swim team. I wore a letter jacket. I was a grease monkey. I drove around in a Camaro Z-28. I dated a hot cheerleader. It's kinda funny -- Alyson Hannigan, who plays the band dork in the movie [Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Willow], was busting my chops, and she started saying that I was from Pleasantville. But a lot of times I feel like that."

To his credit, Klein seems as mystified as anyone by this sum-of-the-parts wholesomeness, which can take a line like "Blow me, beautiful" and somehow make it seem good-natured. And sometimes the rookie earnestness of his stock answers seems straight out of Bull Durham and the "Nuke" LaLoosh handbook. Still, as his idol Jimmy Stewart well knew (clear to anyone who's ever witnessed the cynical grifter in It's a Wonderful World, or the Westerns of Anthony Mann), sweetness is a learned character trait like any other. How deeply it's bred in the bone is -- like most actors' beats -- diverting, but probably irrelevant. "In Harvey, when he's sitting there in the alley, and he's drunk and talking about his best friend in the world, a 6-foot-tall white rabbit," says Klein, flashing that patented killer smile, "you've just got to watch him. I mean, you really have no choice."

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