Does this happen in cycles? Do we see a new spate of high school reunion movies every ten years or so?
Ignoring the logical improbability of those questions, Hollywood's inability to have a creative thought actually has paid nice dividends, with two new movies taking a decidedly different approach to these tenth-of-a-century gatherings. Both remind me of the best films from my high school years. And both are a guaranteed good time at the movies.
Let's start with John Cusack's newest film, Grosse Pointe Blank. Cusack is Martin Blank, a kid who ten years ago had everything going his way. But freaking out at the end of high school, he joins the Army, gets Special Forces training, and later starts his own murder-for-hire business. Must've happened to about ten guys I knew in high school. Anyhow, Martin is invited back to his ten year reunion, and his secretary (John Cusack's usually annoying, but here quite endearing sister, Joan) won't stop bugging him until he agrees to attend.
Martin left a little unfinished business back in Grosse Pointe, Michigan - the girl he stood up on prom night. Minnie Driver plays the small-town teen all grown up, hosting a radio show, and providing a sarcastic commentary about the reunion fever that's gripping the town. Suffice to say (and without giving away too much of the plot), Blank's professional and personal lives clash. Cusack brings true emotion to a hitman who's having a hard time coming to grips with his lot in life. Dan Aykroyd is used judiciously, and to great effect, as a rival hitman, seeking to form a hitman's union. Cusack's character doesn't want to join. "Will there be meetings?" he asks? "Sure," says Aykroyd. "No meetings," says Cusack, coming out from around a corner, guns blazing.
Cusack is the star here - he had a hand in writing and producing the movie as well. It shows, too, in the best of ways. Cusack has poured into Martin Blank the kind of character traits that made him so memorable in a couple of my favorite movies, Say Anything and The Sure Thing. He's confident and calm on screen, tossing off lines in a way we wish we could say them. If you like Cusack, and I do, this is prime stuff.
The other reunion movie is much lighter fare. Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino star in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. These characters were spun out of a stage play, also by the movie's writer, Robin Schiff. Kudrow is on familiar turf here, certainly not straying from "Phoebe" ground. (Actually, that's kind of backwards. It was Kudrow's portrayal of Michele in the stage play that caught the attention of TV producers, who wanted her to play a similar character - Ursula, the ditzy waitress on "Mad About You." If Michele gave birth to Ursula, and Ursula spawned Phoebe, we are actually going back to the true "Kudrow-as-ditz" source material in this film.)
No, the movie is not one giant "Phoebe-thon." Sorvino and Kudrow have taken care to bring Romy and Michele to life as characters, not caricatures. The directing by David Mirkin is imaginative. He apparently saw the opening shot of The Birdcage and thought, "I can do that better..." Sequences involving the girls' yearbook are also hilarious. It serves as a virtual "looking glass," letting us fall through its multi-colored pages to re-live the events from ten years ago.
It's tough to pin down what this movie "feels" like, compared to other movies. When that happens, you know you're dealing with a fresh take, fresh ideas and, in this case, a hip sensibility that is missing from other films. The closest comparison I can make is to Ferris Bueller's Day Off. No, Romy and Michele don't address the camera, but they do inhabit a world that is somehow bigger, brighter, and more adventuresome than ours.
By law, I must mention Janeane Garofalo, who continues to establish herself as one of (if not the) damn funniest actors working today. Janeane is brilliant, and judging from what I've read in interviews, this role gave her quite the chance to deal with some of those nagging high school issues we all had to deal with.
Sure, some of the jokes are a bit flat. But they're sincere. Sorvino and Kudrow have created characters we care about. And more often that not, I laughed out loud at this movie, which is more than I can say for many of the so-called "comedies" out there. Highly recommended.
So, if it's cool, sophisticated, "hitman at a reunion" wit you're looking for, be sure to see Grosse Pointe Blank. For a different flavor of reunion fun, Romy and Michele delivers the goods. All in all, two fine films that make me think maybe, just maybe, Hollywood studios have figured out how to appeal to smart, hip audiences. Now that's a scary thought!