“I don’t pretend to have the slightest clue about how things work in the girl world,” sighs Mark (Victor Garber). It’s near the end of You Again, and as he goes on to lecture his wife Gail (Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter Marni (Kristen Bell) for their bad behavior throughout the film, you’re bound to sympathize. The girl world in this movie is as ugly, crass, and stupid a place as you could ever imagine.
The premise is simple in the extreme. In high school, the film shows in an extended opening flashback, Marni was beset by pimples, braces, and giant nerd glasses, as well as a classmate, J.J. (Odette Yustman). A cheerleader and a bully, J.J. and her herd make it their daily mission to humiliate Marni, culminating in ridiculous display of meanness, when they carry her to the school’s back door and lock her out while singing “We Are the Champions.” As the camera pulls back from her face, pressed against that little institutional-door window, mouth agape and eyes scrunched in horror, you feel… exhausted already.
Cut to the much improved Marni, now a PR exec in Los Angeles, using her nightmarish life story to instruct her team: “I’ve come a long way since those horrible days,” she smiles, teeth perfect and (contact-lensed) eyes bright. If you can’t control what happens to you, she goes on, you can control the way you react. After all, “Perception is everything.” Happy enough when she hears the applause, Marni is extra-thrilled when her boss (Reginald Vel Johnson—and what is he in this one- minute role?) promotes her. She’s headed to New York City as a vice president.
First, though, she has to revisit her lurid past, per the film’s title and embodied by J.J. Only now she’s named Joanna, and she’s about to marry Marni’s brother Will (Jimmy Wolk, pre-Lone Star. Marni heads home to attend the sudden but still tediously elaborate wedding, setting in motion the odious, impenetrable, and utterly unfunny illogic of the girl world. Though Marni is reportedly close with Will, a former high school star athlete, the relationship with Joanna is a surprise to her. More surprising, Joanna says she has no memory of Marni, the girl she tormented relentlessly for four years (“You’ve got this whole good girl act down to a T,” Marni charges her ). Wait, there’s more: when Joanna’s wealthy hotel magnate aunt, Ramona (Sigourney Weaver [!]), arrives to oversee (and pay for) the proceedings, lo! it turns out that she has a contentious high school past of her own, with… Marni’s mom, Gail.
Eerch. As uninteresting as this all sounds so far, the ensuing series of decidedly unrelated episodes is downright painful. Apart from the fact that the script seems like it’s been written by a committee whose members never talked to each other, each scene its own separate hijinksy event, the main idea appears to be abuse and mortification. And more abuse. Marni falls down, Marni gets a bad haircut. Marni is bitten by ants. Marni has gazpacho poured on her head. And yes, Marni gets revenge, which only means that Joanna is also reduced to abject misery, manifested in her stained wedding dress and her drunken binging on spray cheese and chocolate cookies.
The parameters of the girl world remain opaque to Mark and Will, of course—though one of Joanna’s ex-boyfriends Tim (Kyle Bornheimer) steps into it via tearful regrets and resentment, making him at once too girly and too threatening for Will to comprehend: when he hears details about the break-up, Will is revealed for the plot device that he is, incapable of grown-up conversation and literally removing himself from the movie until the girls sort things out. By which I mean, the girls are repeatedly drenched, bashed, tripped up, and mortified, some abuse self-inflicted and all of it depressing.
If the boys are (righteously) mystified, the girls pretend to have a sense of the parameters of the girl world. Gail resurrects her skills as a cheerleader. Mona shows off her expensive wardrobe. Kristen Chenoweth plays a completely hideous celebrity wedding planner/dance instructor. And Grandma Bunny (Betty White) occasions a dentures joke, as well as some predictably unseemly flirtations with young male objects.
The girl world here might be said to be an answer to the many, many iterations of the boy world in The Hangover or Hot Tub Time Machine, or any recent movie starring Paul Rudd or engineered by Judd Apatow. But that effort to contextualize begs the question: why?