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(2001) (Rachel Leigh Cook, Tara Reid) (PG-13)

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Comedy/Adventure: The members of an all-girl band learn that fame isn't all that it's cut out to be when they discover sinister plans behind their recent, sudden success in the music industry.
Josie McCoy (RACHAEL LEIGH COOK), Melody Valentine (TARA REID) and Valerie Brown (ROSARIO DAWSON) are three young women in Riverdale who are hoping to take their garage band, The Pussycats, to bigger and better things. Unfortunately, their manager, Alexander Cabot (PAULO COSTANZO), can only get them gigs playing in bowling alleys and most everyone, including his sister Alexandra (MISSI PYLE) and many of the other local girls, don't give them or their music any respect.

That changes when record manager Wyatt Frame (ALAN CUMMING) stumbles across them while looking for a new act after recently dumping his boy band, Dujour, when they started asking too many questions about their music. Although he's never seen them play nor heard their songs, Wyatt - who's under orders by Mega Records CEO Fiona (PARKER POSEY) to find a replacement band as soon as possible - signs them up and the girls and their songs are suddenly shot to the top of the charts thanks to Mega Records's marketing prowess.

In doing so, Wyatt decides that Josie, the lead singer, should be the band's leader, a point that doesn't sit well with Val, the bass player, but makes little difference to Mel, the ditsy drummer. Soon dissension begins to set in within the band, and Josie discovers that she no longer has time for her hometown friend and potential boyfriend, Alan M. (GABRIEL MANN).

The girls eventually realize, however, that Fiona and Wyatt have been inserting subliminal messages in their songs - in conjunction with the U.S. Government - to stimulate the economy by having their audience buy their records along with any other products or fads they decide to introduce. From that point on, the girls must contend with their new feelings for one another, their music, and the evil recording industry that wants to silence them now that the girls are wise to their marketing secret.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
As much as people complain about banner ads on websites, obnoxious commercials on TV, and other product placement in newspapers, magazines, billboards and just about everywhere else imaginable, they must realize that advertising makes the world go round and allows them to experience things for free or at least at substantially reduced costs. The goal of such activity, of course, is to hawk the latest product or service and hope that consumers will buy whatever it is that they're selling.

At this point you may be wondering what this has to do with the release of "Josie and the Pussycats," the live-action adaptation of the comic book and TV cartoon characters that were popular in the 1960s and '70s and came from the same people responsible for the Archie comics.

Yes, the filmmakers and the joint studio teaming of Universal and MGM are probably hoping to sell a gazillion or so soundtracks, action figures and the like to the film's target audience of young teen and pre-teen girls. Yet, there's another way in which films make money during their production and that's by allowing for product placement and branding within their work. Any given character may drink a certain soda or beer, or drive a particular car, thus giving the manufacturer "free" advertising of their product, with the added bonus of whatever celebrity unofficially endorsing their goods.

In such regards, "Josie and the Pussycats" is one long commercial for an incredibly long list of products and companies that are prominently placed and seen throughout the film. The filmmakers will no doubt defend the blatant product placement by saying that it's part of the film's joke about such matters. That's because part of the story concerns an "evil" record label that's in cahoots with the Pentagon, of all things, in shaping the buying habits of teens through subliminal messages embedded in popular songs.

Accordingly, the defense will continue that there need to be lots of products present to drive home the joke, and rather than make up fictitious ones, why not kill two birds with one stone and generate some extra revenue at the same time. The problem is, once the "joke" occurs a few times - for instance, a boy band flies on the Target plane complete with a company logo every few feet - it becomes all too apparent that the second stoned bird in this case was obviously more important than the first.

The bigger problem is that such product and company name branding is so prominent that it becomes distracting - particularly when such names and logos take visual precedence over the performers. In fact, there are so many obvious and repeated ads that there's little doubt this picture was already in the black long before it was ever released.

Notwithstanding the distraction factor, however, the ads do little damage to the overall viewing experience since what little story is present is about as lame and lackluster as they come. While I never read the comic, I do recall the cartoon series, but can't remember any specifics beyond the trio of girls solving crimes and battling villains all while finding time to belt out some tunes.

The story here - co-scripted and co-directed by Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont (directors of "Can't Hardly Wait," writers of "A Very Brady Sequel") - doesn't stray too far from that concept while doing the obligatory introduction of the characters and story thing. Simply put, the girl band is discovered and catapulted to the top of the music world only to find the aforementioned subliminal conspiracy, all while dealing with the adverse effects that success has on their friendship.

Silly subliminal material aside, it's a story we've seen done better countless times before in far superior films such as "That Thing You Do!" and "The Commitments." Of course, I suppose this film is trying to be the equivalent of a live-action cartoon, with goofy gags, over the top villains and plenty of vibrant visuals. In that sense, it succeeds, what with the charming trio of performers and an infectious soundtrack that - pun intended - often hits just the right notes.

That latter part is certainly the standout element in the film, with the songs produced by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, Josie's vocals sung by Kay Hanley (lead singer for Letters to Cleo), and the three main characters reportedly singing backup and playing the songs. The signature ditty, "Three Small Words" should become a hit, while the various other songs are fun combination of rock, punk and pop fused together.

The rest of the film is yet another classic example of something that works better in concept than execution. I love the notion of deconstructing the popular boy bands of today (the opening sequence somewhat does just that with its faux group, Dujour, being unceremoniously and literally dumped by their label), showing the ludicrousness of assembled bands such as the Spice Girls, and mocking the teens who blindly adopt whatever the newest and latest trend might be.

While the intent is good - although I'm not sure the film's target audience will get or appreciate the not so veiled joke at their expense -- Kaplan and Elfont don't quite pull all of that off with just the right touch and finesse to make it work and be as enjoyable as it might have been. Of course, the target audience will be so busy bopping their heads, tapping their feet, and generally enjoying the spunky spirit exuded by the film and its three heroines that they probably won't mind or notice such deficiencies and missed opportunities.

As the three girls, Rachael Leigh Cook ("Blow Dry," "She's All That"), Tara Reid ("Just Visiting," "American Pie") and Rosario Dawson ("Down to You," "He Got Game") are generally okay and create likable enough characters, but obviously won't be up for any awards next year, not that that was their intention.

While Dawson is somewhat bland and Reid is unfortunately forced to play the ditsy blond (including an embarrassing moment where her character repeatedly runs from room to room after briefly "thinking" about the concept of being in two places at the same time), it's Cook who shines the brightest. Although that might simply be because she gets the most attention and screen time, the young actress delivers a wide-eyed performance that should entertain her female fans and drive the young boys crazy.

As the film's villains, Parker Posey ("Best in Show," "You've Got Mail") and Alan Cumming ("Spy Kids," "Company Man") are okay in their respective roles. Believe it or not, however, they don't go far enough to the extreme in playing their cartoon characters. If the film's going to take that cartoon route, then the villains had better do so as well. While they partially get there, the end characteristics aren't as much fun as they could and should have been.

Although the film has the right intentions and benefits from an infectious spirit - particularly when the band's memorable songs are pumping away on the soundtrack, the fact that it has little in the way of a substantial story, doesn't quite manage to be as funny or irreverent as it wants to be (despite some self-referential moments), and ultimately suffers from all of that far too blatant branding and product placement, means that it's not as good as anyone outside the target audience would probably like.

While I had imagined that this effort might be on par with the silly and stupid but terrifically fun "big" girl power flick, "Charlie's Angels," it clearly doesn't match up. It has a good beat and you can dance to it, but it's not as good or as much fun as I was hoping and expecting. "Josie and the Pussycats" thus rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed April 5, 2001 / Posted April 11, 2001

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