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Purr-fectly Placed Products

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2001


    'Josie and the Pussycats' Tara Reid, Rachael Leigh Cook and Rosario Dawson are cute for cats in "Josie." (Universal Pictures)
"Josie and the Pussycats," the new live-action feature based on the "Archie" comic book spinoff and old Saturday-morning animated TV show, feels like one giant commercial. One giant, self-aware, postmodernly ironic, Super Bowl-quality commercial, not without a certain flashy entertainment value to be sure, but a commercial nonetheless.

Like the two-dimensional version, the amusing but lite-weight comedy (written, directed and updated by Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont) follows the misadventures of the Pussycats, a struggling girl band. Here, it concerns the trio's efforts to free the youth of America from the nefarious subliminal ads that their record label has hidden in the girls' music.

"Josie's" main claim to fame? The groundbreaking use of in-your-face product placement. Virtually every scene is filled with not-even-close-to-subtle appearances by such brands as Crest toothpaste, Bounce fabric softener, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Ivory soap, Steve Madden shoes and Target stores, to name just a few of what seem like the hundreds of consumer goods and chain stores making cameos.

See, that's the perverse trick of contemporary marketing. By assuring us that we're not, as the movie says, one of the "mindless drones who gobble up anything they're told is cool," in short, by telling us that old-school advertising is the villain, new-school advertisers become our heroes. It's like Sprite's "Image is nothing. Obey your thirst." campaign, whose deconstructed subtext is "Don't listen to us. Listen to us." You think McDonald's didn't gladly agree to have its logo plastered all over the scene in "Josie" set inside a hotel room shower stall? Oh, I get it, I can scoff at the ridiculous ubiquity of corporate sponsorship – FedEx Field and "Exxon-Mobil Masterpiece Theatre," anyone? – while still indulging my uncontrollable urge for a Chicken McNugget.

But enough about Madison Avenue. What about the movie?

Well, I've seen worse. The girls from Riverdale (Rachael Leigh Cook as singer Josie, Tara Reid as drummer Melody and Rosario Dawson as bassist Valerie) are all button cute and their performances cartoon bright, even if Reid's dim-bulb blonde character seems a bit too close a cousin of Lisa Kudrow's Phoebe from "Friends." And because of weeks of rehearsal, no one embarrasses herself too terribly while trying to look like she's playing an instrument.

As Fiona, the evil CEO of MegaRecords who hires the Pussycats as dupes in her scheme to brainwash listeners through masked messages, the usually reliable Parker Posey doesn't seem quite . . . animated enough. There's something overly earnest in her portrayal of the zealous, bottom-line-obsessed record industry executive that makes her less a cartoon than a leaden caricature.

Alan Cumming, on the other hand, is the movie's saving grace. As Fiona's cell phone-toting, four-button-suit-sporting right-hand minion Wyatt Frame, the professionally puckish British actor brings just the right wink-wink, nudge-nudge cynicism to the part. In a movie that can't seem to decide whether it wants to satirize or celebrate the art of merchandising, Cumming manages to keep the film's pandering in check with every wicked raised eyebrow.

It should be noted that there's also a funny parody of a boy band called Dujour. Played by an uncredited group of four young actors (Seth Green, Breckin Meyer, Donald Adeosun Faison and Alexander Martin), the band opens the film as Fiona and Wyatt's current pet project – until the boys get wise to the mysterious backing vocals on their new CD and have to be literally dumped from the label, or at least from the label's private jet. Their ridiculous attire, preening, posturing and backstage bickering (not to mention their frighteningly radio-friendly sound – and hilariously dirty lyrics – will seem all too familiar from the world of 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees and other formulaic clones.

A good-humored Carson Daly, host of MTV's "Total Request Live," appears as himself, referring to his role as "a key player in the conspiracy to brainwash the world with pop music." It's meant to be a laugh line, and it is rather funny, the thought that something as innocuous as a hit music video could have any effect whatsoever on what young people decide to wear, eat and buy.

Um . . . ha, ha, ha?

In the end, what "Josie" wants is to simultaneously mock the excesses of our consumer society while taking advantage of the financial benefits of its own role as corporate shill. It tries to have its cake and eat it, too, but such bald-faced opportunism will leave a not-so-funny aftertaste in all but the most undiscriminating mouths.

"Josie and the Pussycats" (PG-13, 99 minutes) – Contains suggestive song lyrics, a naughty word or two, sexual double entendres and cartoonish scuffling.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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