Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion opens with the titular characters, played by Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow, watching and making fun of Pretty Woman, which they claim to have seen 36 times. They mock Julia Roberts’ character for being sad because “they won’t let her shop.” But then, during that film’s Rodeo Drive comeuppance, Michele is suddenly overcome by emotion, telling Romy, “I just get really happy when they let her shop.” It’s a funny joke, the first of the film, and it establishes who these characters are: not especially thoughtful or self-aware, a little petty, and more than a little shallow. But viewed in the context of the film that follows it, it’s also an extremely meta moment, one where a former object of ridicule achieves a triumph that may seem trivial, but is affecting, even powerful, in the context of who that character is and what she’s experienced.
Shallowness defines Romy and Michele, a pair of lifelong friends whose primary concerns are fashion, going to clubs, maintaining their figures, and just being around each other. But as with Cher Horowitz in one of the film’s spiritual ancestors, Clueless, Romy and Michele aren’t presented as figures to be mocked, Pretty Woman-style, for their vapidity. Not exactly. They’re laughable characters, prone to saying silly things, or even stupid ones. But they aren’t pitiable. (Neither, for that matter, is Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, but again, self-awareness isn’t Romy or Michele’s specialty.) Despite being under-to-unemployed, single, and childless as they approach their 30s, Romy and Michele have a pretty good thing going, living carefree lives where their biggest concern seems to be assembling new outfits for going clubbing. (It certainly isn’t paying for their waterfront Venice Beach apartment, which conveniently never comes up.) The trouble starts with the suggestion that this carefree lifestyle isn’t enough.
After being alerted to the approach of their 10-year reunion by a former classmate, quick-burning-cigarette impresario Heather Mooney (a scene-stealing Janeane Garofalo), Romy and Michele indulge in a series of flashbacks to their high-school days, when Michele wore a back brace for her scoliosis and Romy was “kind of fat.” And though Romy and Michele are picked on and/or ignored by the popular kids—led by evil queen bee Christy Masters (Julia Campbell) and her boyfriend/Romy’s crush object, Billy Christianson (Vincent Ventresca)—these flashback sequences establish how the girls supported each other through their trials, as well as their simple high-school aspiration to be liked and thought of as “cool” by the people they perceive as their betters. When that doesn’t pan out—after a heartbreaking senior prom that ends with the two girls dancing together, but alone, to “Time After Time”—they take comfort in the fact that after graduation, they’ll move to L.A. and be cool and well-liked there, together.
Romy and Michele’s goals and aspirations are small and not especially well-developed—neither ever appears to aspire toward a career, an education, or making a substantial impact on the world. And yeah, they’re sort of dumb. That all seems like it should work against the movie and its main characters, but one of the boldest aspects of Romy And Michele is that it doesn’t present its protagonists as broken, directionless people who need fixing. They simply need to figure out their place in the world, a place that accepts and embraces them in all their ditzy, trivial glory. The fact that they do so together, on their own terms, is what earns Romy And Michele its buddy-film bona fides.
But first, they must confront the shame that compels them to attempt to reinvent themselves in time for their reunion, in order to impress the people they could never get to like them as teenagers. Romy is the primary driver of this shame—Michele, arguably the dumber of the two, is more complacent—and it’s she who devises a last-ditch effort to snag jobs and boyfriends for her and Michele before the reunion. Then, when that doesn’t pan out, she comes up with a plan to fake the success they haven’t been able to attain in the last decade, a plan that that highlights the duo’s small-scale ambition: “We can go to the reunion and just pretend to be successful. Who’s gonna know?”
Romy and Michele don’t have a plan for success, they have a plan for faking success. The fact that the plan itself is so ill thought-out—make a couple of power suits, borrow a cell phone and fancy car, and tell everyone they invented Post-Its—is a testament to their general obliviousness, but it also highlights their disengagement from this particular type of success. Their idea of a “successful businesswoman” isn’t something they ever dreamed for themselves. It’s something they literally get out of a magazine, something they figure will get them a discount at the greasy diner they stop at on the way to the reunion. They’re playing dress-up, taking on a role that doesn’t fit them in an attempt to impress people who don’t like them. It’s ambition as performance, and the fact that Romy and Michele so thoroughly blow that performance shows what an awkward fit this mode of ambition is for the two of them.
Romy and Michele are far from the first cinematic pair to be felled by ambition; turn your head and squint your eyes a bit, and the film functions as a distaff take on a Bill and Ted adventure, or perhaps the male-driven stoner comedy, minus the drugs. Don’t let the tight clothes and well-styled hair fool you: Romy and Michele are slackers. (The laconic accent Sorvino affects for her performance as Romy, an odd combination of Valley girl and surfer bro, helps underline this.) But that’s a mode female characters rarely get to play in, free of judgement or counterpoint; the current (and excellent) Comedy Central series Broad City is another helpful comparison point, and it feels similarly revolutionary for the way it lets its main characters be losers, and mines and revels in the humor in that loserdom, rather than trying to correct it.
But while Romy and Michele’s dreams are small to nonexistent, Romy And Michele’s fantasies are big. A large chunk of the film’s runtime is devoted to an extended fantasy/dream sequence—another hallmark of the bro-stoner genre—driving home the idea that the type of success Romy and Michele are affecting for the reunion is all wrong for them. In Michele’s dream version of the reunion, their plan goes off more or less without a hitch—mostly because Michele somehow knows the formula for glue, which is a helpful bit of subconscious insight to have in this particular situation. They get the admiration and jealousy they craved from their peers. They also both get rescued, more or less, by their literal dream men: Romy manages to sweep Billy Christianson off his feet, while Michele discovers that the weasly little nerd who followed her around in high school, Sandy Frink (a characteristically delightful Alan Cumming), is a millionaire who’s surgically altered himself into physical dreaminess (or at least as close to dreaminess as Alan Cumming in a bunch of prosthetic makeup can manage).
Then the dream flashes forward to a future where the girls have grown apart. The cracks that formed in their relationship on the way to the reunion, triggered by an argument over which of them is “the Mary” and which is “the Rhoda” have widened into an unbridgeable chasm. They both have their dream men, and some version of success—it’s unclear how their Post-It lie translated to material success—but they don’t have each other, only the vestiges of a decades-old grudge to take to the grave with them.
The approach writer Robin Schiff (adapting her own stage play, Ladies Room, which Kudrow starred in) and director David Mirkin—a veteran of non-traditional TV sitcoms like Newhart, Get A Life, and The Simpsons—take to Romy And Michele’s split from reality is pretty canny. Due in large part to the heightened feel and non-naturalistic dialogue of what comes before it, Michele’s dream isn’t initially evident as such. The fantasy elements are revealed slowly, mounting in absurdity until around the moment Michele drops that glue knowledge, at which point it proceeds to go all-in with fantastical staging, the appearance of uncanny-valley Sandy Frink, and a floating Camryn Manheim appearing in a limo’s sunroof. To then drop a flash-forward, one rife with old-age makeup, atop all this, Mirkin and Schiff risk sending Romy And Michele off the rails. Devoting 15 percent of the film’s short 92-minute runtime to an extended what-if scenario is certainly a non-traditional—some might even say sloppy—approach to storytelling, but it arguably fits with Romy And Michele’s shaggy vibe. More importantly, it sets the stage for the triumph that follows.
After getting caught in their lie and being humiliated in front of their entire class by Christy Masters—who was probably still stinging from Romy reacting to the news of her impending third child with, “Wow, you must feel really tied down”—Romy and Michele are forced to accept that passing a fantasy off as reality isn’t a suitable shortcut to success. More importantly, they realize that sort of success isn’t what they really want, anyway. Michele finally drags Romy back to reality, and points out what seemed obvious from that first scene of the two of them watching Pretty Woman: “We always had so much fun together. I thought high school was a blast! And until you told me that our lives weren’t good enough, I thought everything since high school was a blast.”
With that line, Michele taps into the slacker ethos at the heart of Romy And Michele: Success isn’t about the job you have, the money you make, or the number of kids you have. It’s about how much fun you have, and who you have it with. In the world of Romy And Michele, sacrificing fun and friendship for some other person’s idea of material success is the real loser move.
To drive this point home, Schiff and Mirkin allow Romy and Michele a triumphant return that’s only a degree or two removed from being another fantasy sequence. After changing into their handmade club clothes—which get a nod of approval from former A-grouper turned Vogue editor Lisa Luder (Elaine Hendrix)—and delivering a fuck-you for the ages to Christy Masters (“I don’t care if you like us, because we don’t like you. You’re a bad person with an ugly heart, and we don’t give a flying fuck what you think!”), Romy and Michele get to present themselves as the colorful creatures of fun and frivolity they are. And they do so by dancing together, once again, to “Time After Time,” this time with Sandy Frink—thankfully sans plastic surgery, but still with the sort of money and power that forces the rest of their high-school class to take notice. Sandy’s material success—he’s made a fortune in athletic-shoe rubber—is the sort of achievement people go to reunions to flaunt, but all Sandy wants is to bask in Michele’s carefree, good-time glow. And they bring Romy along, because as we’ve just seen, bad things happen when those two split up.
Admittedly, Sandy’s involvement in Romy and Michele’s dance routine—as well as his financial involvement in the boutique they open together in the film’s denoument—somewhat undermines the pair’s us-against-the-world dynamic. Setting aside the fact that the dance wouldn’t work half as well without Cumming’s involvement, it does seem a little odd to include a secondary character, one whom both Romy and Michele have shunned up to this point, in this moment of personal triumph for them. (Whether Michele becomes romantically involved with Sandy is left ambiguous, to the film’s betterment.) But the contrast between Sandy’s traditional version of the high-school-outcast-shows-them-all-what-for narrative and Romy and Michele’s more modest trajectory underlines the film’s ultimate point: Success can be viewed through the lens of how other people think of you, or how you think of yourself. Romy and Michele were never destined for the sort of material success enjoyed by Sandy Frink or Heather Mooney; pretending they were nearly destroyed their friendship. Romy and Michele were destined for much smaller, but arguably better things: to enjoy life as they choose to live it—making clothes, cracking jokes, and folding scarves next to the funnest person they know.
The Romy And Michele discussion continues in the Forum, where Keith and Rachel talk over the film’s fluffy charms and weighty legacy. And come back on Thursday, when Kate Erbland will place the film within the context of cinematic depictions of female friendship.