There is a moment in last year’s “The Tao of Steve” in which Donal Logue charms Greer Goodman – and the audience, too – with his appreciation for the 1970’s cartoon series “Josie and the Pussycats,” based on characters from Archie Comics. That moment has more understanding of the series appeal and vastly more entertainment value than this vapid live-action update about the three girls from Riverdale who know how to rock.
One bad sign was the decision to release the movie as a PG-13. There is a way to put a little post-modern edge on a cheesy series from the childhood of today’s 20-somethings – see “The Brady Bunch.” But that requires a wit and complexity that is far beyond the folks who put this together. Their idea of making it appealing to teenagers is to have one character explain that she is there “because I’m in the comic book!” and to make the band’s name into a double entendre.
Josie (Rachel Leigh Cook), Val (Rosario Dawson), and Melanie (Tara Reid) are an all-for-one and one-for-all band, playing the Riverdale bowling alley and dreaming of the big time. They are discovered by record producer Wyatt Frame (Alan Cummings), who signs them without even hearing them play. It turns out that it does not matter what they sound like. Wyatt and his boss, Fiona (Parker Posey) use pop music only as a cover for their plan of total world domination. They have perfected a system of subliminal messages that force teenagers to buy whatever they tell them to.
The half-hearted lesson about the importance of thinking for yourself and the evils of the military-industrial complex are smirkingly undercut with the greatest cacophony of product placement in the history of the movies. There are issues of Vogue with less advertising than we have to watch in this movie.
There are a couple of funny jokes, especially when Fiona explains what happens to pop stars who don’t go along with her plans (they end up on VH1’s “Behind the Music”) and when Tara Reid’s real-life fiancé, MTV-hunk Carson Daly, chases her around a set trying to kill her. Posey and Cummings are always watchable. And the music is surprisingly good, well-produced and catchy. But the Pussycats are dreary, especially the lackluster Cook. We know Reid can do better, but with the thankless task of appearing as a girl so dumb that she sings “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in the shower, dropping the soap every time she claps her hands, she has an impossible task.
If they had not found it necessary to add in some rough language to secure the PG-13 rating, the ideal audience for this movie would be that neglected category of 7-12 year old girls, who might find it fun to see Barbie dolls come to life and who might find the message of loyalty and independence empowering. But the language gives it a sour overtone that makes it inappropriate for that group as well.
Families who see this movie should talk about why teenagers seem to want to conform, and how they can make sure that they decide what they like and don’t like and want and don’t want based on what is right for them and not on what the rest of the group is doing. They should also talk about the messages we all get about what to buy and how we respond to them.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Viva Rock Vegas,” another live-action version of a classic cartoon series, also featuring Cummings.