Romy rocks… and Michele, too

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Yesterday, I mentioned that I’d expose and potentially embarrass myself by writing about three movies I’ve probably got no good reason to love, but which thrill me all the same. Well, here’s #1.

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997). Directed by David Mirkin. Starring Mira Sorvino, Lisa Kudrow, Janeane Garofalo, and Alan Cumming

Here’s the setup, such that it is—three of America’s sexiest, funniest women (Mira Sorvino, Lisa Kudrow, and Janeane Garofalo) spend 90 minutes using their personas to riff on high school culture, raising those personas to R-rated level. They’re so convincing and committed to their characters that Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is much, much funnier than it should be. Kudrow takes her “Phoebe” character from Friends—ditzy space cadet who’s nevertheless convinced that she’s the resident genius—to new heights of lunacy, and adds curse words. Garofalo chain-smokes, snipes, and glares even more than she does in her stand-up routines and on The Larry Sanders Show. Sorvino, who won an Oscar as a brilliantly clueless prostitute/pornstar in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite, goes the opposite way—she goes from R to PG-13, becoming slightly more innocent in demeanor, slightly more demure in her strutting, slightly less impish than she is in Barcelona.

But it’s still Mira Sorvino—voluptuous, long-legged, utterly sexual even in casual moments, and ferociously funny. She’s clearly the best trained, most expressive actress in the trio, and Romy and Michele’s is her show from the first frame to the last. Without her, the movie’s rote commentary on high school life and the pains of class reunions would be dull. As in Grosse Pointe Blank and countless Big Chill retreads from the 1990s, Romy uses 1980s pop hits to add instant nostalgia. Every cliché of the reunion movie is present, from the nerd who gets rich to the prissy A-listers who get their comeuppance at the end.

There are no surprises in the plot structure, but the movie still gets painful, continuous laughter because of the performances. In particular, Sorvino is so committed to her character that you never sense that she’s acting. Her loopy aspirations—to be the popular girl, just once, even after all these years and even though she’s now clearly sexier than any of the whitened-teeth cheerleaders—ring true because she never gives us a wink to let us know that she knows how silly she is. There’s no ironic mugging in her. When Garofalo reveals that, in fact, Sorvino (Romy) didn’t actually invent Post-It notes, we cringe because Romy is devastated by the outing. When her eyes light up upon seeing a long-lost crush, her entire body quivers with anticipation. When she’s forced to endure yet another of Michele’s loopy ideas, we can practically feel her grating her teeth.

Her banter with Kudrow (Michele) is terrific—they somehow talk above and around each other, but still get their points made. Kudrow stammers her lines, as if initially hesitant about her wild schemes. As she builds momentum and believes more and more in her own nonsense, she moves and speaks in increasingly antic rushes. She gets contact highs on her own cluelessness.

And Garofalo, fierce and bitter, is a tornado. She’s the class outcast who got rich, became successful, but who still won’t forgive the jocks who never asked her out, even though she’d turn ’em down now. She’s wealthy, but her only pleasure is lording it over her classmates. Her anarchic riffs are profane and wonderful, and are necessary tonics to Romy and Michele’s air-brained, eternally optimistic behavior.

The film shows as much conviction as its actresses, which is why this bundle of clichés actually works. With its bright, neon colors and cheerful, trippy fashions, Romy and Michele’s dazzles us into believing in this completely implausible world. That’s just it—the movie creates a genuine, self-contained world, one that seamlessly ducks and moves between the present and high school, as if we really stopped evolving after graduation. The first 45 minutes are even edited to create the impression that we’re flipping through a yearbook, and aging snapshots within its pages are madeleines, bringing back suppressed memories. For all the implausibility of its depictions, the movie understands how we experience nostalgia, and how we linger on things—that crush on the girl who never even learned your name, the feeling of inadequacy when standing next to a cheerleader—that we should have discarded long ago.

So, the movie’s form is more realistic than its plot or its punchlines. As a result, the tone of Romy and Michele’s High School Graduation feels delightfully and caustically true, even though the content is completely ridiculous.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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