Think back to your high school days. Wasn’t there at least one person who made you miserable? One person that always seemed to one up you, get in your face and make your life a living hell? Sure there was. And didn’t you always wish you had the courage to turn the tables and teach these “nightmares” a lesson? Sure you did. And even when we each look deep into ourselves years and even decades later, don’t you still harbor at least some of those feelings, wishing for revenge but glad you never have to see those “people” again? Bet you do. But what happens when you walk into the living room of your childhood home years later only to be met with that arch nemesis of the past? In your house! Being adored by your mother! And bunking in your bedroom! And marrying your brother! Say, what? Do you smile sweetly and let bygones be bygones or, with the courage of maturity finally enabling you to exact emotional revenge and achieve a peaceful self-satisfaction, do you let he claws come out and the fur fly as you internally shriek in an uncontrollable rage - YOU AGAIN - while plotting your next move? Well, my money is on the latter and so is that of writer Moe Jelline and director Andy Fickman who bring us multi-generational betrayal, angst and rivalry showcased with a lot of laughs and a whole lot of talent in what star Jamie Lee Curtis describes as “a cute, fun, chick flick romp. . .silly and fun”, YOU AGAIN.
Marni was an ugly duckling in high school. With a bad haircut, braces and bangs, she was the smart girl, the wallflower, the loser loner as opposed to being, well, J.J. aka Joanna Miss Popularity, Joanna was thin, gorgeous, head cheerleader, had minions groveling at her feet and following her everywhere. Whatever she wanted, she got. Whoever she wanted, she got. And every minute of every day, she and her cheerleader friends made Marni’s life a living hell. But time heals all wounds - as do contact lenses, a good stylist, great job, and moving thousands of miles away from home to “start again.” Or do they, for as Marni quickly finds out, seeing Joanna again, in her house, about to marry her brother, the old wounds re-open and when Joanna acts as if she had never met Marni before, enough salt to fill the Seven Seas is poured onto those wounds. Angered by the deception being perpetrated on her family, not to mention still harboring her high school angst and anger towards Joanna, Marni determines to prove to her family that Joanna is not who she appears to be.
Believing her mother Gail to be her one possible ally, those hopes are quickly dashed with words of kindness and warmth and motherly advice basically telling Marni she is wrong and even if she knew Joanna in high school, time has passed, let’s move on. But what happens when Joanna’s only relative, her aunt Ramona, comes to town for the wedding? You see, jealousy and revenge have no timetable and as Ramona walks into Marni’s home, we see the back arch, muscles tense and the claws come out - in Gail. Seems that the apples don’t fall far from the trees as in high school, Ramona was to Gail what Joanna was to Marni. Flaunting her wealth, jet setting life and ageless beauty like a set of fresh pom poms, Ramona only serves to rile Gail, needling her the way Joanna needles Marni, and of course, goes even one step further, espousing her love for her former BFF.
Wanting to set a good example for her daughter but still seething inside over her own animosity toward Ramona, Gail puts her own plan into action. With Gail and Marni each with their own agendas, and clearly Joanna and Ramona with theirs, where does this leave the rest of the family and the poor groom? Caught in the middle of the madness, mayhem, a wedding planner and Grandma Bunny.
The overall casting of YOU AGAIN is beyond impressive. According to Andy Fickman, “I’ve never had an experience like this. [We] were just kind of getting the people we want. I’d go and meet with Jamie Lee at her house and go back and e-mail the studio, ‘I - like - Jamie - Lee - Curtis.’ And they were like, ‘great.’ ‘Sigourney Weaver is in my office. Hey everyone, I just met Sigourney Weaver. She would be good for our small low budget film. What do you say? Oh, by the way, she’s going to be in Avatar. Bet it will be big.’ Literally everyone would be like, Kristen Chenoweth, Victor Garber. Hey everyone, Betty White. How about her? With the exception of Billy Unger and J.J. “Odie” [Odette Yustman], we had everybody.”
Kristen Bell’s comedic skills just get better with each role and here, undoubtedly because of working with her long time friend, Andy Fickman, she shines as Marni. Sweet and nice as a rule, Bell brings these great layers of jealousy and vengeance to Marni with earnest and aplomb that play with sincerity but with a comic edge without going over the top. And like her mature counterparts, she gets to flex her physical comedy muscles. Bell makes Marni both sympathetic and empathetic, touching something in each of us, even when executing her most dastardly plots. Nicely - and funnily - done!
A newcomer to the Rom-Com genre, Odette Yustman handily tackles the part of “JJ” Joanna, a part for which she begged. Providing an over-zealous initial sweetness to Joanna, Yustman is masterful at turning on a dime not only her emotions but her entire physicality with face, eyes, eyebrows, muscle tone, bringing believable contemptible rivalry and betrayal to the screen. But the icing on the cake is her chemistry with Kristen Bell. For Fickman, “When I had her and Jimmy Wolk and K-Bell together, I just knew.”
As Jamie Lee Curtis opined, “What can you say about Betty White except that every single thing you’ve ever heard about her is true.” Yes, it’s really “Her Again” with a small but pivotal golden part as Grandma Bunny. Funny as a rubber crutch, White is golden with her one line zingers, pick-up lines and above all, swinging through the air on a silk swing that had Andy Fickman white knuckling over the stunt. “ Betty is 88 so you gotta understand when we cast Betty, in my mind it was like casting my mom. Nana can barely operate Jello. When Betty first got cast, I’m talking to her like she’s 2. And she’s looking at me like, ‘you’re an idiot.” We get ready to do the silk and we brought in a stunt double. Now you can imagine, you can’t find an 88 year old stunt double. So you have a girl that’s 12 wearing the old lady hair. And she looks nothing like Betty. And Betty’s coming in and goes, ‘What’s she doing?’ I was like, ‘She’s gonna be your stunt double.’ And Betty’s like, ‘Why do I need a stunt double? I can do that. I’m 88. Nothing’s killed me yet. I’ll be fine.’ So my stunt team are putting her on a silk, harnessing her in. I’m starting to feel slightly comfortable, but it’s a drop. Right before we start, she turns to me and goes, ‘Honey, you’ll just feel horrible if you’re the one who kills Betty White.’ At which point I race, because they have to crank her back like a slingshot and let her go, I race back to the monitor. I yell, ‘Action.’ She swings. As soon as I know she clears the frame, I yell ‘Cut.’ I race over and she’s like, ‘Let’s do it again!’”
As for our middle generational ladies, you can do no better than Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver. As Gail and Ramona, respectively, their exuberance and enthusiasm is infectious. And these women are in shape. Each doing their own dancing and, particularly with Curtis, her own stunt work - including cheerleading - they are indefatigable. Weaver admits to rehearsing with her dancing co-star Kyle Bornheimer “a lot, because neither of us knew anything about the samba.” As Curtis describes the dance sequences, “We shot 8 hours of it and it’s like 14 seconds in the movie. I have an entire sequence in silks. I’m the only one who will go up, I go up, Victor is whipping me around. I’m flailing. It’s pathetic. Talk about rehearsals! Weeks, weeks of web work. And the big dance off. Sigourney and I did that 6 minutes a time, for 100 times. A lot of back and forthing.” Concerned that all of her dancing efforts were for naught, Curtis can rest easy as Fickman has assured that “all of it will be on the DVD. It’s all very funny.”
As for the characters themselves, Weaver, a self-described “dweeb in high school”, finds the part of Ramona interesting. “When you are such a loser, it’s a helpful way in to a lot of characters. I think that kind of vulnerability is completely permanent and I think it’s a good thing.” Speaking about co-star Curtis, Weaver says “it was a delight to work with her. She’s such an amazing woman and it was really fun to hate her because I really love her.” For Curtis what stands out as truth and what one discovers for the first time in high school is “betrayal.”
Not to be overlooked are the talents of Victor Garber who, as Marni’s father and Gail’s husband,’ has one particularly funny scene that is too die for. Beyond notable is the incredible Kristin Chenoweth as wedding planner extraordinaire Georgia. With singing and dancing extravaganzas, Chenoweth is at her Broadway best. Jimmy Wolk and Sean Wing also join the fracas as groom to be, Will, and best friend Charlie. Particularly effective are Wing’s scenes with Bell.
YOU AGAIN abounds with cameos - none of which will be disclosed here as I want each of you to experience the same surprise factor I did. What I will say though is that everyone in cameo has a personal relationship to someone associated with the film. According to Fickman, “In terms of finding each role, we were just a very close knit family on the set. There wasn’t anybody that was a cameo that wasn’t somebody we didn’t discuss. It all came about in a really natural way which, in a movie like this, when you’re doing a small ensemble comedy like that, I think that’s the best way.” The hardest cameo to fill, however, was the former love interest of Gail and Ramona. “It was a really hard role to find because you need to find a guy who both women had sorta fought over who, when you saw him today, he was still dreamy. We found a lot of great actors and then we’d look at what they kind of were looking like today and we were like, ‘Hmm...”
Written by Moe Jelline and directed by Andy Fickman in this his third Disney film, YOU AGAIN has the feel of a series of comedy vignettes all sewn together with the thread of a wedding as the connective tissue amongst all the players and events. While each of the “vignettes” on their own are hysterical (particularly the dance-off - which should be its own stand alone music video - and the rehearsal dinner), sadly, there are times where the seams come loose leading to a loss of cohesiveness at various points and a feeling of jet lag. However, thanks to Editor, David Rennie, the comedic pace quickly recovers and resumes. As described by Fickman, “The hardest thing in editing is when you have a plethora of riches. That’s a good problem to have but the hardest thing is just trying to get that movie from a pacing standpoint and try to figure it out.” Of course this plethora of riches also presented another challenge as “with a movie like this, you have multiple closure issues. Everybody has to have their closure.”
Key to the story, however, are the emotional elements of high school that Jelline’s story captures perfectly. According to Weaver, “I think boys are oblivious in high school. Girls are just more sensitive. We are so concerned about how we look and how we’re doing. But boys find their niche and then they go along. Whereas girls are trying to move niches, trying to attract boys who are oblivious, so all of our nerve endings are much more on high. These things that happen to us in high school, I think, no one feels normal but I think it’s particularly hard for girls. It’s more complicated for girls.” Describing YOU AGAIN as having a “very sincere base”, Weaver believes that “ultimately, for us to carry on, we have to take a cold hard look at what lie do we tell ourselves about who we are, what we were and where we’re going. I think every person in the story is trying to take the blindfolds off and really look at yourself. By the end, Jamie Lee’s character and mine, we realized that what we really missed and what we had really given up was the friendship that we had. It’s very meaningful to us.”
Some of Andy Fickman’s greatest gifts are his overall energy and enthusiasm compounded by this love for musical theater and comedy which perfectly lend themselves to YOU AGAIN and the “need” for some great musical numbers, the most delightful and entertaining of which is the dance off between Curtis-Weaver and Bell-Yustman, all punctuated with the song stylings and over-the-top theatrical moves of Kristin Chenoweth and beautifully lensed by cinematographer David Hennings. Another bonus are cheerleading routines that provide great comedic fodder. Kudos to choreographer Mary Ann Kellogg and Christine Lakin! Lakin, whom I adore (and who is one of the nicest people on the planet), not only fills the bill as one of Joanne’s snobby A-lister friends, but served as assistant choreographer to Kellogg working on - and performing - the cheerleading routines.
And but with the exception of a red dress worn by both Curtis and Weaver (which fits neither one’s body type), costume designer Genevieve Tyrrell turns out some exemplary work using scarves for Ramona and dazzling duds for Georgia.
No matter how old you get, you may never outlive high school but you’ll always relive it. YOU AGAIN. Fun, laughter . . .and Betty White – again!
Marni - Kristen Bell
Joanna - Odette Yustman
Gail - Jamie Lee Curtis
Ramona - Sigourney Weaver
Directed by Andy Fickman. Written by Moe Jelline