Monday, May 20, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Josie and the Pussycats’

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Time is a movie’s greatest friend and worst enemy. In the case of 2001’s Josie and the Pussycats, time is a staunch ally to the maligned and often unfairly cruelly mocked film. A box office bomb, the film could not find much critical consensus either, other than that whatever it was trying to do, it did poorly.

Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan were hardly the first directors to make an obvious parody of cultural and artistic trends accused of being vapid and celebrations of the thing they were warning against. Roughly 4 years prior, Paul Verhoeven made Starship Troopers a scathing attack on fascist propaganda, and militaristic culture was roundly criticized for making an ode to fascism. Likewise, Josie and the Pussycats is a movie that foresaw how the eternal tug of war between art and commerce became more of a war with less tug. A system wherein art was supplanted by business deals that commerce had rigged from the bottom up.

Made before terms like “branding” entered the popular lexicon and before Citizens United was passed, Elfont and Kaplan seem to be desperately waving their hands to warn us of the coming consumerist catalyst. It is a culture where art is funded by IPs and where studios and corporations are often one and the same, as they seek to consolidate and target consumers but call them “fans.” Subsequently, this seemingly vapid, goofy comic book movie proved to be as clear-eyed and prescient, arguably, as Sidney Lumet’s Network.

We haven’t even mentioned that Josie and the Pussycats were based on an offshoot of Archie comics about the wacky misadventures of an all-girl rock band. Written by Elfont and Kaplan, the film is positively giddy and guilelessly wry as it satirizes the pop music landscape of that time. But what Elfont and Kaplan realized was something that would become disgustingly apparent a scant few years later: no one was at the wheel, and no one cared. 

Josie (Rachel Leigh Cook), Melody (Tara Reid), and Valerie (Rosario Dawson) are three best friends who just so happen to be a down on their luck rock band. They play at the Riverdale bowling alley, a place that deducts shoe rental fees and use of the platform from their pay. The girls have a manager, Alexander Cabot (Paulo Costanzo), who seems more interested in climbing the narrow social ladder of Riverdale than helping the girls break into the business. His sister Alexandra (Missi Pyle) is along because she has little else to do, and as she tells one character when asked why she’s here, “Because I’m in the comics.”

Elfont and Kaplan pull off their biting satirical aim without ever being mean. There’s a big-hearted goofiness to Josie and the Pussycats. It has fun while also attempting to rage against the proverbial machine. Yet, had the movie been angrier, it would have run the risk of being too cynical. But, like any critic, it loves what it’s taking aim at and wants nothing but the best for it.

It is a movie that often veers into the absurd, sometimes surreal, as it playfully mocks product placement, ungainly PR machines, and how stars are often spoiled and closed off in an attempt to keep them from seeming too human to their fans. Josie and the Pussycats has such a playful quality that even a scene in which the band manager Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming), the manager for the number one boy band DuJour, casually kills them off and yet somehow doesn’t feel morbid or casually cruel. I cackled when Cumming walked into the cockpit and deadpanned, “Get the chevy to the levy,” before he and the pilot jumped out of the plane.

Josie and the Pussycats is almost cartoonish. A vibe that Elfont and Kaplan carefully curate and is helped by the legendary Matthew Libatique. Libatique had already worked with Darren Aronofsky at least twice, with Joel Schumacher before Josie and the Pussycats, and would go on working with Aronofsky as well as Spike Lee. So despite all the criticism of the movie’s vapidness, the film is more visually sophisticated than more serious-minded films that came out around that time.

Libatique started out making music videos, and his understanding of how music videos are edited and shot shows. There’s a look and feel to music videos of that time, and Libatqiue captures it perfectly. Peter Teschner’s editing helps as well as Josie and the Pussycats at times feels light and fluffy despite the good-hearted barbs lobbed at soulless pop culture. Teschner and Libatique’s combined efforts give the film a polished feeling. Yet, it never feels overproduced so much as it provides an exaggerated sense of overproduction.

Josie and the Pussycats combines a glossy facade that’s at odds with how laid back and breezy Leigh, Reid, and Dawson’s performances are. Combine that with Parker Posey’s Fiona, CEO of MegaRecords, the company behind the death of DuJour, the signing of Josie and her friends, and the sprawling plot to brainwash the youth of the day to buy buy buy. Posey’s Fiona is a mustache-twirling evil Lynn battling her rampant insecurities while somehow finding a way to never deliver a line the way a normal human being would. It is a performance trapped in the amber of its time while being effortlessly pitch-perfect.

Or the scene in which “TRL” host Carson Daly and “Mad TV” alum Aries Spears show themselves perfectly comfortable with bludgeoning two innocent girls, Val and Melody, to death with baseball bats. Even more unnerving is how flippantly Daly flirts with Reid’s Melody as he chases her down. It’s meant as a gag since the two were dating at the time of filming, but it inadvertently lands as commentary on the casual violence from men within the system.

The script by Elfont and Kaplan never lets the dark undertones envelop the picture. Rather, they insert it into key places to show us not to mistake their sunny disposition with naivety. Elfont and Kaplan have an almost Mel Brooks comedic sensibility combing the zany with the sly.

Jokes fly so fast that it can be easy to not read them as jokes so much as lazy writing. The popular boyband is called DuJour, for example. Blatant and low-hanging fruit, yes, but it’s made all the more hilarious by their performance of their newest single, “Backdoor Loving.” Yet some gags, such as ditzy Melody holding a sign “Honk if you love pussy cats,” with the word “cats” accidentally hidden, show Elfont and Kaplan’s frisky sense of humor.

But underneath it, all beats a big huggable heart. Most films that satirize institutions or parody cultural trends tend to do so from a place of anger or superiority. Elfont and Kaplan walk a fragile line in somehow poking fun at boy bands and pop princesses and how they are treated like products without ever coming off as needlessly cruel. Even Fiona and Wyatt are allowed some measure of redemption in their final moments as they reveal themselves to not be the pretty, popular people they strive so hard to be.

They are also never overtly mean to the kids who buy the product. Instead, Elfont and Kaplan seem to be practicing an almost daring brand of humanistic empathy. The radical kindness within the film’s tone and between Josie and her friends is a stark reminder of the film’s pre-9/11 release. Josie and the Pussycats is free of irony and cynicism, which makes its commentary all the more piercing.

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures

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