Comedy is built on exaggeration. That’s why Charlie Chaplin didn’t just fall, he wiped out and sometimes, took bystanders with him. That’s why Kramer didn’t just open Jerry Seinfeld’s door, he barreled through like an escaped farm animal. Humor lies in the oddities and the nuances of behavior, either you slightly invert them to maximize the humor (like The 40-Year Old Virgin) or you outright lampoon them to mock the whole idea (like Caddyshack). It’s a trade-off. Stay within the playing field and you limit your options; go for broke and you sacrifice realism. Or try to do both and make a pretty shitty movie.
Part romantic comedy, part teenage nerd revenge fantasy, part America’s Funniest Home Videos episode, You Again is a mostly off-putting hybrid farce/ realistic comedy that lacks direction, technique, restraint, edge, originality and charm. It’s over-the-top when it should be subtle and underwhelming when it should be outrageous. It completely wastes all its good ideas and bookends them between miserable retreads and blatant morality plays. Either go for it, or show a little tact.
Marni (Kristen Bell) was a loser in high school. Not a Michael Cera faux-loser, a Heathers Martha Dumptruck loser. In one flashback scene, she’s literally thrown out of the school while Queen’s “We Are The Champions” sarcastically blares. Why cheerleading captain and heinous super bitch J.J. (Odette Yustman) hates her to the point of squashing her ability to learn is anyone’s guess, but the torment continues, at least until Marni grows up, moves away, gets a makeover, has Carl Winslow as a boss and flies home for her brother’s (James Wolk) wedding. Turns out he’s marrying J.J. and worse yet, her entire family, including the dog, has flipped for her.
Now, based on the premise I’ve outlined, You Again should be an outright, ludicrous farce. Marni isn’t just unpopular in high school, she’s an amalgamation of every nerd cliché ever conceived. Bad glasses, acne, general clumsiness, low self-esteem, desperate lust for popularity, you get the idea. And her tormenter isn’t just a horrifying Medusa, she’s the head cheerleader who’s all kinds of crazy hot that’s about to marry her brother. These two girls aren’t just divergent personalities, they’re mock-ups of clichéd high school opposites. And that farcial polarization grows even stronger when Marni shows up to find J.J. has grown into a nurse named Joanna who tirelessly volunteers for every conceivable cause. She’s hyper-altruistic, every bit as enthusiastic about giving as she formerly was about being catty.
So, what we should have here is a nonsensical farce, but that would have taken balls. And You Again is as neutered and eager to fit in as they come. Marni’s mother Gail (Jamie Lee Curtis) was every bit as popular as J.J. in high school. She too was the cheerleading captain. Also, the prom queen and homecoming queen and star of the high school rendition of Grease. She had a falling out with her best friend Ramona (Sigourney Weaver), who happens to be J.J.’s beloved aunt, who happens to be in town for the wedding. From a filmmaking/ script writing stand point, I like this concurrent plot line, but from an execution stand point, nothing could have driven a stake into this movie’s heart quicker. Where J.J. and Marni’s feud had audacious exaggeration, Gail and Ramona’s had honesty and real reasons for animosity. On the one extreme, You Again has one grudge that deteriorates into wacky sabotages and on the other, it has a genuinely sad falling out that begs for a third act, heartfelt resolution. It just doesn’t work.
There’s two dissenting voices at work in You Again. One seeks only to push the comedy further and further. It gets arrested on planes and swarmed by fire ants. The other seeks only to shore up the emotional bases. It shoehorns in love interests and grinds outs weepy confessions. And like the four main women in this movie, those two voices hustle and flow until the farce tries to prove a point, or maybe the point is ruined by the farce.
Comedy is built on exaggeration, either a little or a whole lot. You Again wrestles with itself until it ends up with some. With a little more willpower or a little less gusto, it could have been better than below-average. As compromised, it’s definitely not. Still, I’m awarding this movie two stars. One because it does try and one because it serially references Hall & Oates. We could all use a little more Maneater in our lives.