[Screen It]

(2001) (Marley Shelton, James Marsden) (PG-13)

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Comedy: When the captain of a high school cheerleading squad discovers that she's pregnant by the quarterback of the football team, she and her squad-mates decide to make some quick money by robbing a bank.
At Lincoln High School, Diane Weston (MARLEY SHELTON) is the captain of the cheerleading squad that's comprised of Kansas Hill (MENA SUVARI), a rebel whose mother (SEAN YOUNG) is in prison; Hannah Wold (RACHEL BLANCHARD), the religious virgin; Lucy Whitman (SARA MARSH), the smart girl; and Cleo Miller (MELISSA GEORGE), who's obsessed with talk show host Conan O'Brien.

The five have formed their own little clique, much to the chagrin of Lisa Janusch (MARLA SOKOLOFF), a cheerleader on the school's "B" squad. Things change, however, when Diane meets and ends up pregnant by the school's new quarterback, Jack Bartlett (JAMES MARSDEN), who gets a place with Diane and promises to marry her after their baby is born.

Unfortunately, without any credit or support from their parents, times become tight for the two would-be parents and Diane takes a job at a grocery store-based bank while Jack works in the local video store. As time passes and their financial situation doesn't get any better, Diane decides that she and her squad should rob the bank since she believes that money is the only way to achieve one's dreams.

As such, the girls begin plotting their strategy by watching old robbery flicks and buying guns from a local exterminator (W. EARL BROWN) in exchange for putting his daughter, Fern Rogers (ALEXANDRA HOLDEN), on their squad. From that point on, the girls must pull off the heist and then deal with the repercussions that may follow.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
Despite most people being upstanding and/or law-abiding viewers, many have an interesting and sometimes guilty fascination with criminal types, especially if they're of the mafia or bank robbing variety as portrayed on TV or in the movies. This isn't a new phenomenon, as it's gone on for decades where such characters are popularized and even idolized through mass entertainment.

Of course, the mainstay of today's moviegoing masses - namely teenagers - isn't particularly interested in the likes and/or exploits of Capone, Dillinger or Bonnie & Clyde. Thus, if you're a filmmaker, you modify the story to fit your audience's demographics, resulting in films such as "Set It Off" and now, "Sugar & Spice."

In today's post-Columbine era, however, making such a film in a serious light isn't particularly politically correct, so director Francine McDougall (making her feature film debut) and screenwriter Mandy Nelson (also making her debut) obviously decided to take the comical/satirical approach at telling their story of a pregnant teen bank robber and her cheerleader friends.

Doing so, however, may have made a bad idea even worse as the resultant film - probably given the green light only because of the surprise success of 2000's cheerleader flick, "Bring It on" - is neither insightful nor funny enough in examining the "teen condition" to offset everything else that's bad about it.

I suppose there could have been some potential in mixing elements from films as diverse as "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Heat" with those from pictures such as "Heathers" and "Clueless." Nevertheless, the title of that last film certainly aptly describes the novice filmmakers in their ability to deliver a good or even mediocre film in such regards.

Teens are always positive that adults don't understand them or appreciate the difficulties they face in those turbulent years. Yet, various adult filmmakers have successfully examined and presented just that in their satire-based films and managed to bridge the generation gap so that both groups could enjoy what's offered.

This film presents teens in an unconvincing, artificial and less than funny way - somewhere in the "Dumb & Dumber" vein that only exists on TV and in the movies - and doesn't approach its teen-based issues in anything but a superficial fashion. That would have been fine had the resultant material actually been funny or even just amusing, but very little of it comes off that way here.

For instance, the whole bit about the surprise pregnancy and the subsequent behavior and attitudes of the expectant couple is absolutely flat from a comedic and/or social standpoint. The same holds true for a running gag about a girl's unexplained, underdeveloped and never explored obsession with talk show host Conan O'Brien. The first bit about that is amusing in an odd sort of fashion, but unfortunately, it keeps returning and becomes increasingly annoying rather than humorous.

While Nelson's script tries to emulate the "teen speak" that made "Heathers" and "Clueless" so much fun to watch, it simply never catches that ever-elusive lingual wave. To make matters worse, the pregnant ringleader is always spouting off little philosophical ditties and sayings ("Every time you point a finger, you have three pointing back at you") that may have worked well in full spoof mode in "The Brady Bunch Movie," but sound stupid and out of place here.

The filmmakers also try to make this picture hip - in a Quentin Tarantino-esque way - by having the girls watch clips from various robbery-based movies (so that they can learn from them), but none of that's clever or funny and in the end never amounts to anything other than making you wish you were watching those other films rather than this one.

Not surprisingly, the performances are as flat and vapid as the rest of the production, but that should comes as little surprise since the characters the performers inhabit are as lifeless and artificial as the "Betty" masks they don for their heist. Beyond those Brady-esque sayings delivered by Marley Shelton ("The Bachelor," "Pleasantville"), the one thing that stands out is just how lucky Mena Suvari ("Loser," "American Pie") was to land in "American Beauty." Her performance here as a chronically surly and belligerent cheerleader simply doesn't work and makes one wonder if her appearance in that Oscar winning film was just a fluke.

While the rest of the performances from those playing the main cheerleaders blend together into a boring conglomeration and James Marsden ("The X-Men," "Gossip") acts like he's been inhaling paint fumes as the inspiration for his character, Marla Sokoloff ("Dude, Where's My Car?" "Whatever It Takes") brings a little hope to the production as the occasionally sassy narrator. Unfortunately, neither she nor the filmmakers take her character far enough in either an edgy or hilarious fashion to have much impact.

Overall, most everything about this film doesn't work, and it often feels like one of those bad movies based on a "Saturday Night Live" skit. A three-minute short about pregnant, bank robbing cheerleaders may have been just right for some quick and stupid laughs, but there's simply not enough material or talent present here to pull off the idea as a feature length film. As such, "Sugar & Spice" rates as just a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed January 26, 2001 / Posted January 26, 2001

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