Romy (Mira Sorvino) and Michele (Lisa Kudrow) are two dead-end 27 year-olds living in Palm Beach. When a chance encounter with former high school classmate Heather Mooney (Janeane Garofalo) reveals their school is hosting a 10 year reunion, they head back to Arizona to re-live their teenage dreams and invent fake careers to impress the former students.
Why, 20 years after the fact, does Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion linger so hard in the memory? Certainly on a conceptual level it reads like precisely the sort of film that should be best forgotten: two airheads reliving their teenage fantasies in an array of silly, colourful mini-dresses (the film’s costume designer, Mona May, also worked on Clueless). Certainly the marketing pushed that angle, which helped to make it even more surprising that Romy and Michele is actually a hugely enjoyable, sharply written comedy with cult appeal written all over it. While its situations are exaggerated well beyond realism, the core experience of returning to high school after a decade rings true. The misfits and nerds more often than not excel in adult life, and those who peaked in high school now live small-town, comparatively miserable lives. Wounds inflicted in acts of teenage bullying still fester in their victims, now nearing 30. The bullies who inflicted the damage, more often than not, have not changed a bit.
The film also benefits enormously from scoring a highly talented cast. Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow develop a fabulous double act, carefully balancing their performances to ensure that Romy and Michele are amusingly naive and foolish but at the same time making them engaging and deeply sympathetic characters. It is also testament to writer Robin Schiff that they feel like distinctly different people, and not a constant identical pairing. Janeane Garofalo is cast to her strengths as Heather, a chain-smoking and mean-spirited cynical woman who growls her way through the film like a wounded animal. Garofalo’s comic timing is exceptional, as it generally is, and while she is essentially playing to type she does it so incredibly well. Another highlight is Alan Cumming, also an immensely gifted comic actor, playing nerd-turned-millionaire Sandy Frink.
The film’s greatest asset, however, is its extended dream sequence. Most films would be content to run a comic dream sequence for a minute or two, but director David Mirkin extends his to bizarre lengths – tracking the lives of the film’s protagonists from the night of the reunion all the way to old age. The longer he stretches the sequence, the funnier it becomes. Even after that the film still has a stunning interpretive dance sequence to go, set brilliantly to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”. None of this is a huge surprise if you glance at Mirkin’s career: as showrunner on The Simpsons he was instrumental in pushing that series to surreal extremes; a move that I suspect guaranteed its longevity.
This is a hugely underrated comedy which delivers pleasing story arcs for several characters, and not just its titular leads. Most importantly it treats all of its core characters with respect and love. The only ones getting mocked here are the bullies. It is a shame that David Mirkin has only directed two films. His other, the Sigourney Weaver comedy Heartbreakers, is nowhere near as accomplished. I keep waiting for him to take a third shot, and fulfil the enormous potential he demonstrates here.