Credit: Republic Pictures
by Morris Yang Featured Film Genre Views

Reunion — Chris Nelson

June 25, 2024

The murder mystery has proven conducive, in recent years, for mashing up tired genre formulae. It has also provided a studded launching pad, marketing and all, for the star vehicle. Usually, this vehicle comes fitted with expectations of sleekness and sensual physique, and more often than not considerations of how wit and tension figure in the blueprint. Good vehicles deliver these goods, cashing in on prefab star power to sprinkle its stardust over the chassis of one too many hackneyed motivation; premium ones lean into their eccentricities, roping in the likes of Adam Sandler to captivate a rapt audience for the circus in town, or they enlist an altogether more accomplished pantheon of acolytes in service of the A-list: stellar acting, stellar screenwriting, and a supercalifragilistic direction to top it all off. Knives Out? Glass Onion? Wake up, dead man, a gang’s in town, but they’re not the real deal. It’s hard to be that, granted, when your premise is a brew of stock tropes kidnapped from their respective Sim reality shows, and the foil — you guessed it — murder(!) at a high-school, lost-soul reunion.

Reunion, the equivalent of a Honda Civic in autophilic rankings, is director Chris Nelson’s fourth feature film. It’s not a steaming pile of trash by most measures, which cannot be said for a good deal of sublimely unwatchable dreck out there. But it’s mostly a happy-meal bore, dutifully dispensing empty calories of saturated attentiveness and eagerly swiping through a menu screen of variegated sound and color just fast enough to prop up the illusion of hunger. Lil Rel Howery, known among others for his role as Ryan Reynolds’ sidekick cop in Shawn Levy’s Free Guy, plays our deadbeat protagonist Ray, who’s surprisingly energetic and nonchalant about his career prospects as a full-time part-timer. We’re introduced to him as he dresses up and sprays cologne all over, ready to head out to his Class of 2001 homecoming with friend and county cop Evan (Billy Magnussen). The duo pale in comparison to their compatriots who’ve by and large made it further in life: sociopath and stock bitch Amanda (Nina Dobrev) is running for Congress with every physiognomic and personality cliché nailed down; investigative journalist Jasmine (Jamie Chung) has the hots for Evan and may have an ulterior motive for attending the party; Meagan (Cassandra Blair), Ray’s old flame, spares no second in humiliating him on sight; and Mathew (Chace Crawford), the host, boasts alpha finbro douchebag energy — credits perhaps to Crawford reprising his character’s fratboyish misogyny from The Boys — and generously puts them all up for a night of drinking games, bathroom quickies, and the not-so-fond reminiscing of adolescent rivalry. Next morning, Mathew’s dead (a bullet wound to the chest), and a half dozen or so of the partygoers remain on site, conveniently barred from leaving by snowstorm-induced landline failure and a desire to damn the next person’s moral worth.

If this is a perfectly conventional setup for the whodunnit, Reunion takes it all in, but neglects to draw anything other than the nervous afterthought of a punch. Turns out, everyone has a reason to want Mathew dead, although the flesh-and-blood avatars who harbor these reasons are themselves poorly and thinly conceived. The film’s ensemble, nothing too shabby, is wasted on tropes whose sole purpose is to serve as conduits for clumsy one-liners, advancing the narrative one minute and bone at a time; we, the somewhat attentive audience, are less meant to empathize with its characters than we are to follow their scent. It almost pushes the film into uncanny, surreal territory — the kind you might imagine A.I. actually pumping out in three to five years — if not for its tonally aseptic sheens. Why is Amanda cartoonishly narcissistic? Why is Mr. Buckley (Michael Hitchcock), their former teacher, looking as if he got plunked out of a thoroughly ’70s sitcom and into this millennial madness? Who is Vivian (Jillian Bell), and why are her oddball traits seemingly overlooked once the action sets in and dismissed as simple schizophrenia? The vacuum-sealed cast appear on screen as if in rehearsal for a stage production, their line readings and gesticulations delivered with the élan of an audition tape and the attention span of a goldfish. Throw in Howery’s flat and uncharismatic appeal — this, despite his snazzy got-’ems and shenanigans — and Reunion merely progresses in odd fits and starts, its lack of substantive backstory and interiority hampering credulity through and through. When the curtain falls and the bombshell drops, expect groans of disappointment. Nothing disappoints like a ruined orgasm, and if all high-school reunions were such a mix of the blindingly obvious and the deafeningly contrived, it might be better to be the first to die.

DIRECTOR: Chris Nelson;  CAST: Lil Rel Howery, Billy Magnussen, Jillian Bell, Nina Dobrev;  DISTRIBUTOR: Republic Pictures;  IN THEATERS: June 28;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 34 min.