Disney's Reunions at 25: Grosse Pointe Blank and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion

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Disney's Reunions at 25: <i>Grosse Pointe Blank</i> and <i>Romy and Michele&#8217;s High School Reunion</i>

With commencement season just around the corner, let’s take a moment to honor the 25th anniversary of the 10-year reunion of the class of 1986, or 1987, or anyway, sometime in the late ’80s. It may not seem like a particularly auspicious (or specific) milestone, but that nebulous graduating class was special enough to be honored with two different mainstream comedies, released a mere two weeks apart—by two different subsidiaries of the same studio, no less! Somehow, Disney’s Hollywood Pictures put out Grosse Pointe Blank, about a neurotic hitman attending his 10-year reunion, on April 11, 1997, and Disney’s Touchstone Pictures followed it with Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, about two best friends doing the same, two weeks later on April 25. They grossed nearly identical sums in North America, suggesting a very specific (if surprisingly robust, in the scheme of things) audience for movies about Generation Xers grappling with the psychological wounds of high school and decaying vestiges of their late-‘80s youth.

Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion engages more directly with keeping the look and attitudes of ’80s culture alive. Despite Romy (Mira Sorvino) and Michele (Lisa Kudrow) hailing from the Tucson area, they both have a valley-girl affect that fits with their adopted Los Angeles home. (That’s especially true of Sorvino, who won her Mighty Aphrodite Oscar with a more old-fashioned sort of ditzy vocal affect.) In frequent flashbacks to their teen years, their get-ups are more reminiscent of Madonna-bes than the bland popular girls who torment them; in the present, they favor bright colors and shiny textures that look cartoonishly out of step with the rest of the movie’s 1997 world. The movie was perhaps ever-so-slightly ahead of the retro curve that spring: Boogie Nights hadn’t even finished managing the ’70s-to-’80s nostalgia comedown and The Wedding Singer’s all-purpose ’80s party didn’t arrive until 1998.

At the same time, Romy and Michele hedges a little on its ’80s bona fides, making No Doubt’s contemporaneous hit “Just a Girl” a soundtrack motif alongside “Turning Japanese,” “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” and so on. Grosse Pointe Blank, on the other hand, really commits to its instant-classic soundtrack (a second volume was even released on CD, as was the style at the time). When the movie breaks from its hipper take on ’80s music, it’s only to make reference to Public Enemy and Morphine, leaving them carefully unplayed as an if-you-know-you-know sign that Debi (Minnie Driver), the high school sweetheart hitman Martin Blank (John Cusack) left behind, has great taste in music. This is something she shares, it’s implied, with Martin; he’s really the unlikely halfway point between Cusack’s characters in Say Anything and High Fidelity, and music is one lingering aspect of Martin’s old life that seems to give him nostalgic pleasure. It’s something like an inverse of Romy and Michele, who are steeped in their personal ’80s signifiers to the point of myopia (in the running gag/plot point about them pretending to invent the Post-It, it never occurs to them that it substantially predates their entire high school education) without ever seeming especially moved by the music of their youth (their big car singalong trails off when they admit to each other that they don’t know most of the words to “Footloose”). Their detachment—pretending to make fun of Pretty Woman while watching it dozens of times—is not the same as Martin’s detachment.

So Martin would not have hung out with Romy and Michele in high school; neither of them were in the “A-group,” as Romy and Michele refer to the popular kids. It’s hard to tell if Martin would be sharing a cigarette with Heather, the outcast played by Janeane Garofalo in Romy and Michele, because Grosse Pointe Blank is almost clique-agnostic in its look back at teenage years. It’s much more observant about the collection of strange individual personalities forced to coexist during that time. While some of the other reunion attendees are unpleasant, they don’t appear as malicious as Romy and Michele’s A-listers; Martin’s alienation isn’t intricately tied to their approval; and despite his initial reluctance to attend his 10-year, he’s too inward-looking to snark much in the direction of his classmates. There’s plenty of Cusack deadpan—and a funny scene where Jeremy Piven, playing a lost pal, immediately calls out Martin’s subtle dig at his profession as a realtor, jostling out an immediate apology. Most of the time, though, he reacts to life updates with a kind of wide-eyed curiosity: When Piven’s character reveals that another mutual acquaintance sold him his car, there’s genuine inquisitiveness when Martin asks: “Didn’t he break your collarbone and steal your woman?” Later, the professional killer defuses a physical conflict with the same overly aggressive guy rather than kicking his ass. Over in Romy and Michele, a reminiscence over a nerd they once pranked is more succinctly (though also hilariously) interrupted with one of them asking: “Didn’t he die?”

Strangely, this is a crueler joke than most of Grosse Pointe Blank’s dark-comic hitman slapstick. Despite, say, the scene where body disposal is scored with “99 Luftballons,” Grosse is the more grounded of the two Disney reunion movies, at least in terms of recognizable human emotions. In the hands of director George Armitage, even the shtickier elements—Alan Arkin as Martin’s reluctant psychiatrist; Dan Aykroyd as his rat-a-tat rival—contain rueful satire, an element that Romy and Michele muffles. Exactly what kind of airheads are Romy and Michele, anyway, if they’re ambitious enough to leave Tucson for Los Angeles but hapless enough to hold a combined one customer-service job between the two of them? In keeping with director David Mirkin’s Simpsons background, their intelligence/stupidity appears elastic, stretching as needed. The movie lands an idea both original and a little sketchy: Remaining the same person you were in high school can be a source of comfort and delight, so long as that self-worth isn’t tied to what other people think of you. It also creates a moral universe where telling off the mean girl isn’t enough; she must suffer multiple humiliations as the heroines escape in the former nerd’s rich-guy helicopter. Romy and Michele get to go high and low at the same time.

So does Martin, of course; he kills a bunch of people before he’s redeemed by Debi’s love and seen as a good, well-meaning guy. Doubtless it’s possible to read Grosse Pointe Blank as the insufferable male hipster take on the reunion comedy, toying with a cool soundtrack, fashionable movie violence, and self-conscious thematic seriousness that the lighter Romy and Michele (written by and starring women) doesn’t bother with as a justification, risking the kind of dismissal so often faced by “girly” comedies. Despite the Specials cuts and “Blister in the Sun” on the soundtrack, Grosse Pointe Blank is all so ’90s, isn’t it?

Yet it’s the elements that should date Grosse Pointe Blank that bring it closer to timelessness. Romy and Michele transcends its 10-year time-trap in its own ways, with a portrait of female friendship that may be even more vital because Romy and Michele are not especially nice people. But the existential material in Grosse Pointe Blank echoes across the quarterlife-crisis movies that would follow in its wake, and has more Noah Baumbach spikiness than Reality Bites mush. (Fitting, certainly, that Kicking and Screaming’s Carlos Jacott turns up.) Martin’s search for self in a pitiless world is especially resonant: “It’s not me,” he protests repeatedly in a number of situations, to most upsetting effect when Debi catches him immediately post-murder. It dovetails with the perfectly grim running gag that Martin doesn’t need to hide his contract-killing career. He tells people what he does and most of them either ignore it, laugh it off or react with sociopathic indifference. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which option they’re choosing. Finding your true self doesn’t get any easier at 28.

Rather than Martin’s deadpan confessions, the refrain that really breaks through the small-talk is Piven’s memorably repeated exclamation: TEN YEARS, MAN! It’s a period of time that feels almost laughably small, 25 years later—especially if, say, you were close to your own high school graduation back in 1997. They seem so young now! Watching actors fuss over their accomplishments and ennui as characters who aren’t even 30 yet becomes its own form of nostalgia. To say nothing—well, OK, to say a little bit—of the nostalgia for a time when Disney could put out two casually R-rated comedies in a single month. Grosse Pointe Blank and Romy and Michele were both likely greenlit thanks to some recent hits (Pulp Fiction and Clueless both come to mind), which might explain why no one at Disney seemed to think twice about releasing them so close together. Regardless of commercial trends, though, the reason they both found a modest audience without fully cannibalizing each other is probably the same reason their equivalents wouldn’t be big-studio wide releases today: Both attempt to process something relatively quotidian and relatable in a quirky, inventive way. Maybe audiences at that precise moment just couldn’t get enough of Gen-X navel-gazing—or maybe studios at the time were more savvy about repackaging generational navel-gazing into comedies with bouncy soundtracks.

Given the lack of similar studio comedies today, it’s tempting to suggest a 40-year-reunion revisitation—and there’s a nonzero chance the actors will give in to that temptation at some point. (Cusack already made the little-seen War, Inc., which feels so much like a branched-timeline sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank that it may have been a discarded sequel script at some point.) Let’s hope they leave these movies alone, though. A re-reunion would be a futile gesture toward the passage of time—the kind of awkwardly formalized gathering that both movies seem to understand as inadequate. Fleeting glances at a reunion don’t really matter; you’re the one you have to live with.

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.