Film is an entertainment medium that, by its very nature, tends to reward the viewer in rewatch. Sometimes movies even reveal to us how we’ve grown or changed since we last saw them. Our own Max Robinson reassesses old favorites, seasonal classics and the occasional oddball lost under the couch in his monthly column, Stale Popcorn.
One of last year’s biggest commercial and critical hits was Christopher Miller and Phil Lord’s The LEGO Movie. Audiences really responded to the film, and for good reason! It’s a canny blend of gorgeous visuals, humor, and meta-textual winks, while still being essentially the brainchild of two large corporations meant to sell DVDs, toys, books, t-shirts, etc. The reason The LEGO Movie works is because it’s willing to level with its audience and embrace the fact that, yes, this is a movie about a product, but we’re going to tell a good story and everyone’s going to have fun.
The reason I bring this up at all is because I rewatched Josie and the Pussycats recently, and I was struck by how much it reminded me of both The LEGO Movie and the underrated Ben Stiller vehicle Zoolander (which, notably, also came out in 2001) in terms of how it’s a very straightforward major studio comedy that’s also pointedly about commerce and commodification.
The premise of Josie and the Pussycats (based on the Archie Comics characters of the same name) is that there’s a vast illuminati-style conspiracy that uses pop music, and pop stars, to brainwash teenagers into spending their apparently considerable untaxed income on jeans, soda, you name it. After having to dispose of mega-popular boy band DuJour (in case you needed more proof that this movie is perfectly of its time, here’s Seth Green and Donald Faison goofin’ it up as teen heartthrobs) for Asking Too Many Questions, publicist/hatchetman Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming) ends up in the town of Riverdale and discovers that local girl-group The Pussycats is their perfect replacement. The Pussycats, by the way, consist of frontwoman Josie (height-of-fame Rachel Leigh Cook), bassist Valerie (a pre-stardom Rosario Dawson), and drummer Melody (Tara Reid, Tara Reid-ing it up here).
Josie and the Pussycats was the second of only two movies directed by the duo of Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan: the first was the teen comedy Can’t Hardly Wait. As you can expect from that resume, it’s just about a perfect “early 2000s” time capsule. Characters buy *CDs,* they wear crop tops, they talk on flip phones. They hang around soundstages with pale purple couch cushions next to white plastic walls. It’s like an entire movie set inside of a Target commercial and that’s because it essentially is one.
Straight up, the cinematography in this movie is absurdly, absurdly good. Matthew Libatique, who’s best known for his collaborations with Darren Aronofsky on movies like The Fountain and Noah, crams as many familiar corporate logos into frame as he can throughout. The effect is one long visual gag where characters absentmindedly stand around and hold conversations while the audience is assaulted by brands. There are boxes of Cheer® laundry detergent inexplicably stuck to the walls of an airplane in the film’s opening sequence. At one point, Melody takes a shower with the familiar McDonalds® arches etched into the glass behind her and washes with a loofa shaped like a box of french fries. Josie and love interest Alan M enjoy a visit to the aquarium sponsored by Evian®. Comedies with strong visual flair are rare, but certainly not unheard of. But Josie and the Pussycats is the only comedy I can think of where set design and shot composition are a crucial part of why it’s funny.
The newly rebranded “Josie and the Pussycats” struggle to remain friends while cruelly manipulated by Wyatt and his James Bond villain boss, Fiona (Parker Posey). Fiona and Wyatt manage to briefly turn Josie against her friends through ego-stroking subliminal messages on a Walkman. (“I’m a trendpimp!” Josie exclaims once she snaps out of her conditioning.) Meanwhile, Carson Daly (played by actual Carson Daly) and MadTV’s Aries Spears, who initially attempts to pass himself off as Carson Daly, attempt to kill Melody and Valerie. “Actually…this is more like Total Request…DEAD!” Daly’s caricature of himself declares, before chasing Tara Reid through a sea of celebrity cardboard cutouts.
It’s not hard to see why Archie allegedly hated this film: a super-broad satire that makes jabs celebrity culture and corporate synergy is a pretty big departure from their digest-sized, family-friendly comic book adventures.
There’s a really admirable sturdiness to the Josie and the Pussycats. Its gags are expertly paced, never overstaying their welcome, and it’s carried by a strong ensemble cast. On its own, the film’s “the power of friendship and true love conquers all” message is functional, if pretty stock. But what really stuck with me about Josie and the Pussycats is that it’s film that deliberately plays with the notion of film-as-product; Josie and co. are torn between their desire for commercial success and their commitment to remaining loving friends. On a larger scale, you could argue that the finished film is indicative of Kaplan and Elfont’s obligation to deliver a studio-financed comic book adaptation while staying true to themselves creatively. Is that too navel-gaze-y? Maybe, but it’s weirdly fitting that just as Josie, Melody, and Valerie ultimately return home to Riverdale and to anonymity, the movie itself was widely disliked by critics and unloved at the box office. Evidently, we just weren’t ready for The Pussycats.