Film of the Week: Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Revisiting comedy films is always a curious experience. The surprise, the novelty, everything you couldn’t help but laugh aloud at tends to soften; it becomes closer to comfort viewing, easy to curl up in like a warm blanket, but less likely to pull a big response. I’ve watched David Mirkin’s acerbic cult comedy Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion several times, and I always expect my reaction to be of this vein... but then I’m giggling at every dry one-liner, at every bizarro plot change, until it reaches its true climax—an otherworldly, threeway interpretive dance to “Time After Time“, featuring a pencil-rolling Alan Cumming—and I think... well, I don’t really think anything, I’m too busy laughing for that.
Written by Robin Schiff from her stage play Ladies Room, and starring Lisa Kudrow (a fellow Groundlings alum and originator of the Michele role) and Mira Sorvino (fresh off an Oscar win), it tells the story of two unambitious friends—big of heart if not always of mind—who begin to question their path in life when faced with their ten year high school reunion. Fearing derision from their old classmates, who have surely achieved everything they said they would, the girls decide to become “fulfilled” and successful—quickly... When that fails, they decide to lie and say they made their fortune inventing Post-It notes. Schiff has stated her idea for the characters came from overhearing two banal valley girls chatting in a club bathroom—complimenting each other in an infinite loop that, in Schiff’s own words, “became the most entertaining and perhaps most frightening conversation I'd ever heard.”
That may sound as if Romy and Michele are nightmarish, garish caricatures, but Schiff is too astute a writer not to treat her characters with depth and respect. They’re both slackers with a furious loyalty to each other, always encouraging the other that they are good as is, breeding a fierce (if matching) individuality in one another. They’re also good hearted—as is the comedy, devoid of unnecessary crudeness but no less sharp for it. Romy and Michele are biting, weird and built on a foundation of friendship against all else. No wonder it’s endeared an audience enough into achieving cult status; the kind with 20th anniversary celebrations, endorsements from the real-life creator of the Post-It, drag show recreations and conspiracy theories that David Lynch plagiarised this for Mulholland Drive (Justin Theroux, mysterious cowboys, strong female leads, emotionally distressing and time-bending dream sequences: go figure).
The real conflict of the film isn’t in Romy and Michele attempting to change the perceptions of their old bullies, it’s when the insecurities this dredges up cause them to question the others perception of themselves. Romy is put out when Michele takes her joke of sleeping with someone for personal gain seriously, and doesn’t seem surprised; Michele doesn’t like Romy’s insinuation that she is the more intelligent and leader-like of the two. An argument starts, and they fall out on their way to the reunion: into the dragons mouth they go, broken apart by the mere exercise of re-entry. The strength of their friendship means as much to them as each other, and massively higher—they will learn—than the opinions of others. In the rigid social spheres of their high school, they weren’t A, B or C-class; more a satellite orbiting on the periphery—cool yet uncool, bullied yet not above being mean to others. In fact, everyone here had the potential to be mean to someone else in High School, each person more focussed on those “above” them than the ones they tend to step on. Chain-smoking, scene-stealing Heather Mooney (Janeane Garofalo) becomes overjoyed upon learning she was responsible for someone else’s misery instead of being only a victim; giddily making amends and signing her victims old yearbook. If everyone can be cruel, and oftentimes not truly realise why they’re doing it—then what value are their words? When Romy and Michele prioritise what others think of them, of what they have or have not, they crack—reciting chemical formulae and wearing business suits aren’t strong enough defences against the scars of teenage insecurity. Belief in their own, and each other’s, authentic selves: that’s a better defence. And more-so, that’s what really matters to a friendship.
There’s merit to Heather’s jealousy of them, and there’s something to say about that cult status. Romy and Michele gain a true popularity not from copying, cruelty or insincerity, but from authenticity, originality and positivity: and also from not giving a damn about what others think. A weird, scathing high school comedy; a staunch,empowering testament to friendship; both top of their class.