As a man who just recently went to his own 20-year high school reunion this past summer, seeing Michael Rosenbaum‘s Back in the Day hit home. As we trek back to our hometowns to reminisce more simple times, we are flooded with nostalgia and perhaps a little regret, happy to re-imagine the good times, perhaps a little mad at ourselves for letting opportunities slip through our fingers for whatever dipshit reason we as 14-18 year-olds reckoned were the right choices at the time.
Back in the Day is tinged with these elements as any film about a high school reunion should (reference Grosse Pointe Blank for another prime example). It tells the homecoming of Jim Owens (Michael Rosenbaum), a guy who left his his hometown of Newburgh, Indiana, to tackle Hollywood and become an actor. Like many things that beset young starry-eyed teens, Jim’s plans didn’t quite work out the way he wanted. Despite giving fantastic auditions for film and TV roles, Jim has been relegated to being the spokesman for All City Insurance. While not a bad gig (he’s sort of like that Flo woman from the Progressive commercials), it isn’t quite what he hoped for and is antsy about his situation. So he decides to go home to reunion, catch up with old friends…and meet up with his old flame Lori (the enchanting Morena Baccarin).
Jim and the guys, back home again in Indiana…
When he returns home, Jim immediately reconnects with his old friends who pick him up at the airport. There’s T (Isaiah Mustafa – yeah, the Old Spice guy which = awesome), Skunk (Harland Williams), and Len (Christopher Polaha) where they fall right back in the same routine as when they were younger, joking with each and mostly making fun of Skunk. Of course they think he’s a Hollywood hot shot – they see his face everywhere for All City ads…and are even known to dry hump them for comedic effect. When they tell him that Lori has a boyfriend, Jim is visibly upset, but tries to play it off. She’s the one that got away, and it becomes clear at this point, boyfriend or not, he will make a play for her affection. And so, the usual shenanigans happen – wiffle ball tournaments, egging the old principal’s house, terstripping a passed out and Skunk naked and putting him into the bed of someone else’s pickup truck. And then shit gets real when Jim finds out Lori doesn’t just have a boyfriend, but is engaged, something which his friends neglected to mention to him. And not only is she engaged, but to a guy who broke Jim’s leg during an all-important football game when they were in high school. So, the chase for Lori takes on a different tone at this point. Fearing that he will make the same mistake twice, Jim still pursues Lori as one might expect. Jim must wrestle with whether or not this is the right choice at this particular point in time, especially when it comes to light that Jim chose to let her go before with her waiting for many years for his return before giving up on him.
So this is a pretty standard film in the high school reunion arena, with a tremendous heart. It is filled with laughs, has its gross moments (does one really think that getting a group of guys together after twenty years won’t have them revert back to their juvenile selves?) and also has some really touching moments.
I was fortunate enough to speak to both writer-director–star Michael Rosenbaum as well as star/comedian Nick Swardson about Back in the Day and I had a ball doing so. Both were quite passionate about this film and Swardson didn’t disappoint with the laughs. Talking to both of them felt like talking to my own friends. Such down to Earth guys. No wonder they’ve been as successful as they are.
I spoke with Swardson first in LA, where I immediately questioned him about the weather since I was sitting in the middle of a damn polar vortex with temperatures topping out at -8 degrees Fahrenheit (-45 at its lowest with the wind chill). Being from Minnesota, he could certainly sympathize. After discussing the disappointing seasons of our fave football teams, his Minnesota Vikings and my Chicago Bears, we got down to business. I asked him how he’d gotten involved in the project as they had some common experience with the same director, but Swardson said he’d been introduced to Rosenbaum through some of his friends who he worked on Reno 911! with. Rosenbaum thought he was perfect for a part, based on a guy he’d known from his hometown, and wanted him to play the role. When I asked if he had done any research into the people of Newburgh, Indiana, where the film takes place, he said:
I know that character. Growing up in the Midwest, I know people like this.
Swardson as Ron Freeman.
His instincts were spot on as Ron Freeman, from the sweet mustache (about which he said “I hated the mustache, but it fit the character…I felt like a molester”) to the 88oz Big Gulp of Mountain Dew, Swardson exudes a certain type of Hoosier and does it well. What I feel is genuinely the most touching moment of the film surprisingly involves Swardson during a less than flattering sexual act involving the back seat of a station wagon and a pregnant ex-cheerleader (Liz Carey). I asked Swardson if he’d consider doing some more dramatic roles since I was so taken by this scene and he said:
I totally would do a dramatic role. [One of the reasons] this scene went as well as it did was I was going through some personal shit and really channeled that. I really cried during that scene, but that part got cut.
The scene will surprise you. I promise. As we discussed the logistics of this scene, shot in a small car, in the backseat, I asked him was it awkward to which he replied:
There is nothing I won’t do for comedy. The only hard part about this scene was the physical logistics. It was painful. My knee hurt like hell and we only had 20 minutes to do the scene. Liz (Carey) put saline drops in her eyes, which no one knew about, and that made it more difficult, trying to hold the emotion [as she dealt with the pain of the drops].
When I asked him if his role, which is on the smaller side in the film, was at any point bigger or cut a wider swath in the narrative, but he said:
It wasn’t, but Rosenbaum wanted it to be after the fact.
Before finishing our conversation, I asked him about whether or not we would ever see a Terry spinoff from Reno 911!, something I’ve always wanted. He said he pitched it to Comedy Central, but they never committed. The pitch – Terry as a detective who never solves anything. Damn…I need that show in my life. Swardson was incredibly fun to talk to and very open in answering my questions. It was much fun to interview him.
Ron Freeman giving his ex-principal the bird.
Later in the day, I was able to speak with Michael Rosenbaum about the film. It was a great little conversation and I could tell how proud he was of this film. It reflected him, his friends from home and his hometown in the best and most honest way. When I asked him if he had looked at other high school reunion films before making Back in the Day, he said he had not. I initially mentioned Grosse Pointe Blank, Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion and Beautiful Girls specifically). His response:
I haven’t seen Grosse Pointe Blank and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, but love Beautiful Girls. It had a darker edge to it, which is a direction I didn’t want to go.
He said he had shown a cut of the film to Adam Sandler and Sandler was impressed with the way the film turned out so sweet, and he was happy that Rosenbaum didn’t steal material from other similarly-themed films. This is a point I would agree on with Sandler. I could feel the realness of the characters, who were anything but stock, recycled characters. They had depth in subtle ways and it is flourishes like the scene granted to Swardson and Carey that I mentioned above, both characters who operate on the periphery of the narrative, that give this film layers that you might not expect. Rosenbaum expounded quite eloquently about the basis for the film and the direction he wanted to take it:
I wrote this a few years ago, based on people I really knew. This film captures a spectrum of people coming together with awkwardness, people who haven’t grown up, people with families and people who don’t know who they really are. I was trying to be as honest as possible. But I love fart jokes, too. There is a big part of me in Jim. When I come home to Indiana, I do the things that Jim does. I wanted Jim to ask, “What have I been missing?” His friends are happier than he is and more content despite his supposed success.
And when I asked him about the end of the film where Jim and Lori don’t get together and whether at any point in the writing phase he did have them getting together, Rosenbaum replied:
In real life the guy doesn’t end up with the girl. Jim missed the boat. He still has something to do. It’s selfish to come home and try pick up where [he and Lori] left off. I also didn’t want the fiancée to be an asshole (like the guy in The Wedding Singer…it’s too easy to hate him). It is just too on the nose if they end up together. Jim has to finish his story. And that he gets great advice from unlikely sources – i.e. Skunk – makes this all the more necessary.
Jim and Lori getting their groove on.
This is a point I would certainly agree with and one of the reasons I would so happy with the ending. All that said, I felt that the success of this film rested mostly on the chemistry between Jim and Lori and it is exceedingly obvious that he and Baccarin have real chemistry onscreen. The scenes that they are in together really pop with sexual tension. When I asked how she became involved in the project and whether they did any rehearsals to shape the characters, he said:
We met through an ex-girlfriend. One day we met and I was describing the film. She said, it’s fun and got heart and I want to do it. Before the movie, we only read the scenes together, nothing too extensive. She was a joy. I would put in her every film if I could. The chemistry was easy.
Rosenbaum, a former resident of Newburgh, Indiana, could have easily drifted off into parody of the folks of Southern Indiana. Newburgh resides across from Kentucky on the Ohio River. It wouldn’t be hard to paint the people of this town as white trash (although Rosenbaum does give an apt portrait of the town and its inhabitants). As an Indiana native (Muncie, represent!) who lives in Bloomington, this is a stereotype I know and one that is easy to exploit, so kudos to Rosenbaum and crew for not doing so. He was very humbled by the experience of filming in Newburgh and the tremendous outpouring of support he got from the locals as well as the cast and crew who worked for virtually no money. A note to my hometown peeps, let it be known that Pizza King (a Muncie legend) makes its first (?) appearance in a motion picture.
Jim, wiffle ball extraordinaire.
When all is said and done, this is a solid film filled with laughs and some keen insights. I think Rosenbaum has behind-the-camera chops, so it will be nice to see how he develops along those lines. He said he has three projects in the works now, but will likely not star in any of them. Fans of Smallville know he has screen presence and there is no shortage of that in Back in the Day. All in all, this is a fun watch and one I would suggest to anyone who wants a laugh and who isn’t afraid to plumb the full spectrum of humor for said laughs. The payoff is certainly worth it. The films premieres this past weekend in Indiana and hits theaters in other cities on January 17.
Here’s the trailer: