For those of us who have longed for a “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion” meets “Wedding Crashers” in French, Netflix is here to fill that void.
The streaming service has had decent luck with French farces (“I Am Not an Easy Man” is their best), so “Back to School,” aka “La Grande Classe,” seems like a safe bet for them, and for we the paying customers.
And one this indifferent Gallic romp finally gets up to outrageous speed, there are laughs and just enough surprises to tide one over. Waiting until the movie is over halfway done before providing its first real laugh? Must be a French thing.
Pierre-Yves and Jonathan, played by Ludovic Day and Jérôme Niel, are lifelong friends who just closed the deal that insures the success of their internet marketing company. Jonathan (Niel) is the tech whiz, short and uncertain of himself in public situations. Pierre-Yves, or “PYC,” is the tall, cocky blowhard whose off-color joke makes the sale.
But back in middle school, “Jon” was the plump runt nobody noticed. PYC? He was “Bozo the Clown” (as funny in French, with subtitles, as it is in the English dubbed version). He was bullied, like Jon and other chess club nerds.
Oddly enough, Diderot Middle School (snort) back in Brétigny is holding a reunion, which they learn about by accident. Nobody remembered to invite them. Nobody remembered them, period. A little social network research convinces the one-bullied duo to return to the scene of the crime and lord it over their inferiors.
“It’ll bring up bad memories!”
Robert Palmer’s line that “Wise men know that revenge does not taste sweet” must lose something in translation. Because as soon as they return to Brétigny and borrow Jon’s dad’s BMW to make their “entrance,” things start to go wrong.
That “You haven’t changed” (Since MIDDLE SCHOOL?) lie doesn’t help. Nobody knew them, then. Nobody remembers them, now.
Jon came, reluctantly, because he has a mission. There was this letter expressing his feelings for the fair Linda “all through sixth grade.” He plans to give it to her tonight.
And Linda (Caroline Anglade), a blonde beauty who bites her lip in lascivious interest, just might be willing to read it.
But she’s made a mistake. This “Jonathan” is not her “Jonathan,” the punk who led Les Dragons, a gang of middle school toughs who tormented PYC and Jon. She thinks he’s Jonathan Lopez, who “burned down the gym” and was expelled, who fled to Thailand and became a kick-boxing legend.
And with the lust in her eyes and purpose in the come-ons, Jon isn’t quick to correct her. Oh no, not at all.
This is when “Back to School/La Grande Classe”) gets off the ground and on its feet.
PYC is the first to see how the provincials are just as provincial as ever, sneering at the Paris swells he and Jon have become. The headmaster’s daughter (Joséphine Draï) has staged this reunion as an ego trip, because inheriting your father’s job in a small town is the greatest measure of success.
The mean girls are still mean, the chess club nerds Jon and PYC hung around with still debate semantics and which characters in “The Lord of the Rings” were gay.
“Read the Elvish version!”
And the bullies still judge their lives by the brutish standards of adolescence, none moreso than car wash assistant manager Hervé (Nicolas Berno). He’s as brawny and bull-necked as ever. Thank heavens he thinks his brother in bullying, Jonathan Lopez, is the guy Linda has just dragged over to get reacquainted.
Linda clings to Jon like the Big Man on Campus he once was, and any distractions — Les Dragons have some hash they stashed 20 years before that they want to smoke with him — freak her out. She searches the empty school rooms with a pal, storming in on a couple having sex on lab table in science class.
“That should be ME on that table!”
And bullies being bullies, the old pecking order quickly and cruelly reasserts itself.
Will these nerds have their revenge? Will Jon fess up to Linda, Hervé and the gang? Every time he’s about to, Linda does something that stops him short. Like calling her husband on her cell.
“Ferde? It’s me. I’m LEAVING you!”
Day, Berno, Anglade and Draï — the last a Jami Gertz “goodie two-shoes” with a dark side type, if you know your late model American teen comedies — are the stand-outs in the cast. Taken together, they lift “Back to School” close to a passing grade.
A word of warning, though. In these sensitive times, a movie with this much stomach-churning bullying can said to be “triggering.”
And for all the third act twists that point toward tying this comedy up in a bow, it’s that age-old universal message that is really the point here.
“Vous ne pouvez pas rentrer à la maison.” No, “you can’t go home again.” Or at least, you should know better. Especially if you’ve ever seen a movie or TV show about the perils of class reunions, even middle school ones.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, some violence, drug use, sex, profanity
Cast: Ludovik Day, Jérôme Niel, Caroline Anglade, Nicolas Berno, Joséphine Draï and Pauline Deshons
Running time: 1:23