[Deep Focus]
Girls rock.

Josie and the Pussycats: in which third-string characters from the Archie comic book universe become avatars of a good-natured revolt against the rampant, cynical consumerization of American culture. Seems like an unlikely turn of events, but that's exactly what Josie and the Pussycats nearly pulls off. Consider it A Hard Day's Night crossed with They Live. From the wicked pre-credits sequence, which reveals a dastardly conspiracy involving Alan Cumming, a shady record mega-company, and the pre-fab boy band DuJour, to the sweetly romantic finale, Josie and the Pussycats balances bubbly pop exuberance with a fairly biting satire of American commercialism.

Specifically, Josie and the Pussycats takes place in an alternate America, a sugar-coated dystopia that's dominated by corporate logos and product placements. Excited teens declare "Diet Coke is the new Pepsi One"; a pretty blonde takes a shower in a bathroom dominated by McDonald's logos, down to the fries-shaped sponge she soaps herself with; a blimp flies overhead touting Archie Comics Web site Josie.com. The film's touchstone image may be its eye-popping reimagining of Times Square as a garish conglomeration of billboards, logos, and a massive Starbucks storefront. The frightening thing is how slight an exaggeration this actually is.

Of course, many American kids have become intimately familiar with the layout of Times Square, the ultimate symbol of commercial culture, now that it provides the backdrop for Total Request Live (TRL), MTV's all-hit music-video countdown that airs daily just in time to capture the afterschool audience that is, not coincidentally, the target market for Josie and the Pussycats. (TRL host Carson Daly makes a homicidal cameo here, alongside his MTV compatriot Serena Altschul.) The film's ultimate conceit is its suggestion that the pro-consumer messages are actually embedded within the pop songs themselves. In a world where megacorporations effectively control radio playlists through a new, institutionalized form of payola, thus predetermining the hit status of any given single, the analogy is indirect, but still gels.

If the film's conception is on-target, the execution is more of a problem. Co-directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont previously directed Can't Hardly Wait and wrote Brady Bunch and Flinstones sequels. That's not a real impressive resumé, and while I figure the Josie screenplay could have used some tuning up (one lame character actually asserts, correctly, that her presence "in the comic book" is her only excuse for being in the movie), it's the laggard pacing and TV-style shot set-ups that really hold the movie back, indicating a lack of directorial imagination.

The performances are mixed. The minxish Rachael Leigh Cook makes a fine Josie, I suppose, even if she can't bring a whole lot of snap to scenes that require her to turn nasty. Rosario Dawson is mostly relegated to the sidelines as bassist Valerie, while Tara Reid gets the thankless job of playing drummer Melody as your typical dumb blonde (and shoulders the film's single, perhaps inevitable, pussy joke). Cumming has a few moments, but he's nowhere near as good as he should be, and Parker Posey brings a nails-on-chalkboard clarity to the villainous role of record mogul.

Josie's secret weapon is cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Requiem For a Dream), who favors the kind of hyperactive color schemes generally associated with fashion layouts in hip magazines. This guy has a real eye for the medium, and his often grainy shooting style lends the film a sexy DIY look that complements the tunes perfectly. He also makes the girls look terrific, if vaguely otherworldly, like they've just stepped out of a Bebe poster. (The short-cropped Cook in particular is given a delicious sheen.)

If the end result is a pretty but sluggish satire with some great ideas lurking under the glossy surface, I submit that moviegoers could do a lot worse than that. The near-brilliance of Josie's satire is that, by taking the familiar device of the product placement way over the top, it illustrates just how close to the saturation point everyday life is. Critic Steve Erickson noted that, walking home from the New York multiplex showing Josie, he was probably exposed to just as many corporate logos as were dropped into the film itself. Complaints that the logo overkill displayed on-screen is hypocritical are completely wrong-headed-there's no other way to demonstrate the fundamental absurdity of the global marketing machine, and the complicity of popular culture in its machinations.

It's true that there's some irony in the way the movie criticizes pre-packaged pop bands while blithely hawking the soundtrack CD, which features-right-a pre-packaged pop band. The thing is, the music is catchy and tuneful--good enough to deserve the promotion. The mostly teenaged Thursday-night crowd I saw the film with was plenty familiar with the music-as the band started banging out one number during its climactic performance, you could hear voices murmuring excitedly, "It's 'Spin Around!'" You can call that hype, or you can call it fun. At any rate, the film slyly deflates its own pretensions.

Written and directed by Deobrah Kaplan and Harry Elfont
Cinematography by Matthew Libatique
Edited by Peter Teschner
Starring Rachael Leigh Cook, Alan Cumming, Tara Reid, and Rosario Dawson
USA, 2001

Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Screened at Loews Palisades Center, West Nyack, NY

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