The Return of the Reunion Movie
The gross jokes of 'American Reunion' notwithstanding, the best of these films celebrate the power of long-term friendship
Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade.
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Amid all the poop, fart, sex and masturbation jokes that litter American Reunion, a Johnny-come-lately addition to the always raunchy American Pie movie series (Reunion opens today, April 6), there’s a palpable sense of the characters’ disappointment that their lives have turned out to be so ordinary and mundane.
Thirteen years after graduating from high school — yes, the first American Pie movie was in 1999 — Jim (Jason Biggs) and his buddies (Chris Klein, Thomas Ian Nicholson, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Seann William Scott) are brought up short when they measure their average-guy achievements against earlier expectations. As they page through their high school yearbook and read aloud their own hopeful predictions for their futures, the friends can’t help but reassess where they’ve been, what they’ve done, and the gap between their dreams and reality. Adding mature perspective is Jim’s father (Eugene Levy), a widower who assures his son that he’s proud of him. (But as I said, moments of reflection occur only against a steady barrage of excessively gross jokes.)
Reunion movies were ever thus, measuring the distance that characters have come from their earlier selves and the dreams and ideals they left behind on the journey. Think back to several of the best examples of the genre: Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), The Big Chill (1983), The Decline of the American Empire (1986), The Barbarian Invasions (2003) and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997).
Return was novelist turned writer-director John Sayles’ first movie. A micro-budgeted indie, the drama is about old college pals, political activists in the 1960s, who’ve gathered for a summer weekend to discuss old times, meet new spouses and partners, flirt with former flames and remember how it was. It stars a cast of then mostly unknown actors, though David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) and Gordon Clapp (NYPD Blue) have gone on to greater fame.
In many ways, Return, as ur-boomer as you could get, set the template for future reunion movies. When The Big Chill, from writer-director Lawrence Kasdan and featuring a powerhouse cast that includes Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt and Jeff Goldblum, came out five years later and became a popular hit, many critics noted its resemblance to the earlier Sayles film. What Big Chill had going for it, though, besides a sappier storyline, was its soundtrack, which includes a medley of Motown hits from the '60s. (I remember a few years later a Gen-X friend dismissing an old Supremes song as “more of that Big Chill music.”)
The smarty-pants versions of those two films were the Oscar-nominated American Empire and Oscar-winning Barbarian Invasions, linked movies by French-Canadian director-writer Denys Arcand. The first features a group of middle-aged academic friends who rendezvous at a country house for a long weekend where they make high-minded conversation, revisit old grudges and enjoy sexual divertissements. Barbarian Invasions, a sequel, begins as a main character from the earlier film learns he is dying. He summons his old friends, along with family and others, for deathbed reunions, where old scores and disappointments are rehashed and settled.
Romy and Michele is just plain fun, a girl-power movie with Mira Sorvino and the ever-superb Lisa Kudrow as two dim-bulb friends traveling together to their high school reunion. Once there, they try to pass themselves off as having achieved far greater success in life than they’ve actually had. (One claims to have invented Post-It notes.)
Running through all of these movies are a few common themes: Grown-up life rarely turns out as glamorous or exciting as you expected when you were 17 or even twentysomething, there’s happiness in settling, and the music you listened to and the dance moves you did when you were in high school or college are still the ones that get you grooving.
Mostly, though, these movies are about the power of long-term friendship. They acknowledge that friendships change over time and that some don’t last. But, and this is the secret to their appeal, these films underscore that the best of old friendships are magic, with the years just melting away every time you’re together — no matter how much hair you’ve lost or weight you’ve gained.
Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, Parade, More and more.