JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS

Written and directed by Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont

With Rachel Leigh Cook, Alan Cumming, Rosario Dawson, Parker Posey and Tara Reid

***



Satire may come with more pitfalls than any other genre. The satirist risks simply reproducing the attitudes he or she intends to criticize, or going to the other extreme by preaching at the audience or flattering them instead of challenging them. Films like Joe Dante’s SMALL SOLDIERS, Paul Verhoeven’s STARSHIP TROOPERS and David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB have often been accused of glorifying violence, rather than commenting on it.  Daniel Minahan’s recent reality-TV parody, SERIES 7, fell into another  trap by patting its audience on the back by heading to the arthouse isntead of watching SURVIVOR. JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS is an astute  satire of commercialism and the music industry - an update of Frank Tashlin’s THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT for the era of Britney Spears and Limp Bizkit - that’s received some of the year’s most venomous reviews. Respecting the story’s comic book roots,  the film examines what happens when the Pussycats’ innocent “girl power” exuberance becomes commodified. The most common criticism is that the film is hypocritical:  its hyperbolic use of product placements cancels out its vehement attack on corporate marketing aimed at teenagers. But such product placements are nothing new. The entire first reel of CAST AWAY is practically an extended Fed Ex commercial, yet few critics wrote off the  film as a result. Self-conscious advertising and self-serving jokes about product placement are nothing new either, but JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS is doing something different and more biting.

The opening scenes of JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS introduce boy band Du Jour. In a clip of a performance for MTV, they perform a song laden with hilarious double entendres about anal sex, obviously inspired by the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” However, they’re disposed of quickly, as their manager Wyatt (Cumming, whose  fop act is down to perfection) stages their deaths in a plane crash when they start asking questions about odd background noises in the final mixes of their music. Cut to Riverdale, California, where all-female trio the Pussycats, comprising singer/guitarist Josie (Cook), bassist Valerie (Dawson) and drummer Melody (Reid),  are trying to make a name for themselves. Unfortunately, they have trouble finding gigs anywhere besides a bowling alley. Literally running into Wyatt by accident, they sign to his label, Mega Records. Becoming an overnight sensation, they don’t realize that Wyatt and Mega executive Fiona (Posey) are only using them  to manipulate teenagers into blind consumerism. And then those background noises start popping up in their own songs.

Practically every shot of JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS is filled with product placements. Du Jour’s plane is dominated by the Target logo, but about a dozen others appear. For no apparent reason, a huge ad for MTV’s website lurks in the background of one scene. Yet no one in the film takes much notice of them. Just as we  generally avoid pondering how many ads we’re exposed to every day, the omnipresence of advertising in the world of JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS passes with little notice. WAYNE’S WORLD made a brief gag out of its product placements, but Kaplan and Elfont repeat this “joke” until it becomes grating.

In this respect, JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS may actually be a piece of social realism. Were I to strap a camcorder on my shoulder and  take a 10-minute walk around the MTV studios in Times Square, the number of logos  appearing in that video would dwarf the number in JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS. The film had the very real impact of sensitizing me to their ubiquity: walking past down Manhattan’s Sony building the day after I saw it, I noticed a sign touting  “Sony Building Public Space” for the first time. If so many critics  have spent half their reviews talking about the film’s product placements, it’s a sign that it may have struck a nerve, even with people who despise it. Kaplan and Elfont could hardly point out more blatantly how thoroughly  advertising has  colonized America’s public space. Using the logos of nonexistent corporations, as THE TRUMAN SHOW did, might actually reduce this point to a glib joke. By acknowledging its own complicity, it avoids self-righteousness and creates a dialectic between itself and the real world. If one balks at its product placements, how can one open a newspaper or watch commercial TV without the same disgust?

To be sure, JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS’ treatment of teenagers as  brainwashed sheep is more than a little condescending, although it clearly implies that they’d find it easier to think for themselves in a less overwhelmingly corporate culture. But the film’s major flaws are more aesthetic than  political. Unlike Tashlin (or even most music video directors), Kaplan and Elfont don’t have much directorial flair, although the film’s deliberately garish color scheme and immaculately sterile production design compensate for their lack of visual style.  Their attempts at heart - half-assed subplots about the band members’ love lives and a finale in which the villains reveal their frailties - fall pretty flat.  Apart from Cumming, the rest of the cast, especially Reid, errs by giving self-consciously “cartoonish” performances.  Even so, JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS is full of incidental pleasures that have little to do with its satirical agenda, like Du Jour’s clueless discussion of the meaning of their name.  And the soundtrack  is surprisingly good: punk-inflected power pop that’s full of energy without a trace of aggression, rather than MTV-ready teen fare.

Certainly, JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS is a product itself: like SMALL SOLDIERS, it’s  both a satire and a toy catalog. Given the vast expense of filmmaking, it would be impossible for it to practice everything that it preaches.  (For what it’s worth, the directors have revealed that they didn’t accept money for the product placements.)   But were it a low-budget arthouse release, like SERIES 7, would it ever reach the real-life counterparts of the teenagers it portrays? And can one escape capitalism simply by making a film - or even writing a book - criticizing it? Leftist writers like Naomi Klein and Thomas Frank aren’t selling their books at cost or publishing them through non-profit presses.

JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS is as much a product of corporate culture as MTV, but it feels as if one of the editors of THE BAFFLER or PUNK PLANET had decided to try subverting this culture from within.  Its populist aesthetic - and desire to work on the surface level, as a light comedy in the vein of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT - goes hand in hand with real anger. Still, the film doesn’t only attack consumerism  and the music industry’s exploitation of musicians. It also suggests that pop music and Hollywood movies would be  more fun without all this baggage, offering itself as a test case. Kaplan and Elfont bridge the gap between the world of Klein and  Frank and that of TRL, having a good time in the process. This task hardly warrants contempt.