Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
Studio Line: Universal Studios - here kitty, kitty, kitty...

Hot newcomers Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), Melody (Tara Reid) and Val (Rosario Dawson) are three small-town musicians with big dreams but little future. Then fate gives the Pussycats a chance of a lifetime when they are discovered by band manager Wyatt (Alan Cumming) of Mega Records, who signs them overnight to an awesome recording contract. Suddenly, Josie and the Pussycats are living life in the fast lane with sold-out concerts, a number one single and global stardom. But it's not all limousines and private jets. The Pussycats soon discover they're being played like pawns in an evil plot by the record label's maniacal CEO Fiona (Parker Posey) to control the youth of America.

Director: Deborah Kaplan & Harry Elfont
Cast: Rachael Leigh Cook, Tara Reid, Rosario Dawson, Alan Cumming, Parker Posey, Gabriel Mann, Paulo Costanzo, Missi Pyle
Box Office: Budget: $22 million. Opening Weekend: $4.562 million (2556 screens). Domestic Gross: $14.252 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.& DTS 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 18 chapters; rated PG-13; 99 min.; $26.98; street date 8/14/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary With Directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont plus Producer Marc Platt; Backstage Pass; Deleted Scenes; Josie and the Pussycats “Three Small Words” Music Video; Dujour “Backdoor Lover” and “Dujour Around the World” Music Videos; Theatrical Trailer; Cast and Filmmaker Biographies; Production Notes; DVD-ROM Features.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/B

After the debacle that was 2000’s big-screen version of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, you’d think movie folks would learn a lesson. Apparently audiences don’t care for wacky, self-referential live-action versions of old cartoons, a fact that was proved again with 2001’s Josie and the Pussycats.

I suppose the two probably shouldn’t be compared, for the source material was quite different. Bullwinkle always was a satirical effort, which meant that the resulting film stayed reasonably close to the source’s spirit. It failed miserably in these attempts, however, which is why it came across like a soulless and pathetic copy of the original.

As for Josie, the comic books that inspired it lacked the tongue-in-cheek tone of Bullwinkle, but the movie received similar ironic treatment. Some folks have lashed out at Josie because the film so strongly altered the cutesy tone of the comics and the animated TV show, and logically, I should be among them. I enjoyed the TV program, and as a youngster, I also loved all of the comics published under the “Archie” banner; if the characters lived in Riverdale, I adored them!

However, no childhood concerns affected my judgment of Josie. Sometimes I do dislike the ways in which films alter the spirit of the original material, a point that will be made in spades when I review the Adam West Batman film. However, Josie didn’t fall into that category; with a few qualifications that I’ll discuss, they could do pretty much whatever they wanted with the characters and I wouldn’t mind.

That acceptance of the filmmakers’ decisions depended on one important factor, however: that the movie not stink. Unfortunately, the folks behind Josie couldn’t live up to their end of the bargain. From start to finish, this was an almost universally terrible flick.

Although most of the movie concerns the titular rock band, Josie actually starts with an extended view of a different musical group, Dujour. The boy band have quickly risen to the top of the charts, but when they start to question some material on their album, A&R man Wyatt (Alan Cumming) apparently kills them in a staged plane crash.

Ordered by his mysterious boss Fiona (Parker Posey) - the owner of MegaRecords - to quickly locate a new pop sensation, Wyatt soon discovers the Pussycats, a less-than-successful trio made up of singer/guitarist Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), bassist Valerie (Rosario Dawson), and drummer Melody (Tara Reid). Assisted - though clumsily - by their manager Alexander Cabot (Paulo Costanzo), the band quickly pounce on Wyatt’s offer to perform for MegaRecords. From there, they immediately leap from obscurity to enormous success.

A number of problems ensue, however. For one, their bosses change the group’s name to Josie and the Pussycats, a decision that doesn’t sit well with Val. She doesn’t seem to be terribly jealous, but she starts to feel disposable and she fears that Josie’s becoming too caught up in the rush.

Something else is odd about the whole deal, as it becomes clear that a subtext affects the folks who listen to the music. In cooperation with government agencies, MegaRecord places subliminal messages in their records to ensure the mindless consumerism and conformity of the nation’s teens. They also use them to affect the thoughts of Josie, who starts to live up to Val’s concerns.

Also stuck in this muddle is a minor romantic subplot. For years, Josie has sought the heart of Alan M (Gabriel Mann), supposedly the “sexiest guy in Riverdale” (I guess it’s a really small town). However, he seems to view her as one of the guys, so this prospective love affair remains stalled, at least until Josie hits the big time. In her new and sexy rock star duds, Alan starts to see what he’s missing, though Wyatt and others conspire to keep the pair apart.

Will Josie and Alan connect? Will she discover the harmful messages hidden in her music? Will the band become friends again? Will the Pope continue to pray? Josie isn’t the kind of film that offers any surprises, and even those it should have included were quickly betrayed.

That latter element was one of the many issues that made Josie unsatisfying. From the very start, there’s absolutely no doubt that Wyatt and Fiona are manipulating the recordings and that they’re evil. Geez, Wyatt cold-bloodedly kills his cash cow minutes into the film! As such, the film has no sense of drama or suspense, as we never see Wyatt and Fiona as anything other than horrible people. This leaves the audience 75 steps ahead of the protagonists, and it gets tiresome to wait for them to catch up to us. No movie should give away its alleged twists so early.

However, the main weakness of Josie stemmed from its irreverent and self-referential attitude. From the very start of the film, we’re clearly informed that we’re in a wild satire. And flick that starts with a boy band spoof is in trouble. “Dujour” isn’t a very clever name for the group, and aren’t these acts parodies of themselves already? The actors - who include semi-notables like Breckin Meyer and Seth Green - are decent in the parts, but the whole conceit seems stale; such satire was moderately fresh in 1999, but by 2001, the gag is old.

Josie mocks product placement and other consumer-related issues to an insane extreme; everywhere we look we find logos for Target, McDonald’s, AOL and a slew of other companies. We also witness teens as they quickly flip from fad to fad without the slightest hint of cognitive awareness; incessantly we hear statements like “orange is the new pink!”

That last aspect of the script was one of many that got old really quickly. Used two or three times, the whole “X is the new Y!” conceit might have been mildly amusing, but the film milks that cow far too many times. Those lines crop up with absurd frequency throughout the movie, and the joke doesn’t get any funnier.

Actually, none of the gags in Josie were humorous. On second thought, that’s not totally true. A couple of bits that appeared during the movie’s climax weren’t bad, such as a hissy fight between Fiona and Josie. Otherwise, however, the film almost totally lacked anything that was clever, amusing or even mildly intelligent.

That was one of the flick’s biggest problems. It seems to feel that it has something important to say, but it doesn’t. Unfortunately, Josie flogs its issues over and over, and the whole thing becomes almost painful to watch.

Although the film’s deviation from the spirit of the comics didn’t really bother me, I must admit that I was taken aback by its crudeness at times. The movie didn’t offend me, but I was surprised that something that might appeal to family crowds got so raunchy. Frankly, I think that the filmmakers did owe some debt to the fan’s of the original material, especially since many of them will have their own families now. I expect lots of people would assume that Josie would offer reasonably family-friendly fare, but that was definitely not the case. I guess the filmmakers felt it needed to be vulgar to attract the ever-desired teen population, but this attempt seems to have backfired on them.

Its actors don’t aid the movie. None of them are bad, really, but they lack much charisma or spark. Actually, it is painful to watch talents like Posey and Cumming slum in this trash, though it didn’t reach the pathetic level of Robert De Niro in Bullwinkle. I don’t know how these two fine actors ended up in this junk, but I hope they were well paid for their efforts.

Since the rest of the cast consists of less well-established actors, I can better understand why they appeared in the piece. However, that doesn’t mean they are any more successful. Most seem fairly inoffensive, but I really didn’t like Cook’s performance as Josie. She plays the character in a very mannered and manic, as if Josie suffers from a nasty speed habit. Cook offers no depth in the role and she just makes Josie annoying.

One oddity of this cast revolves around how much some of the actors look like other performers. In my review of Road Trip, I already noted how much Breckin Meyer - who cameos as a member of Dujour - looks like Bill Maher. Hmm… I hadn’t noticed that they have the same initials; the plot thickens!

In addition, Josie features a slew of other doppelgangers. Meyer’s Road Trip costar Costanzo reminds me of Jon Stewart, while Mann bears a serious resemblance to James Spader. As Alexander’s nasty sister Alexandra, Missi Pyle evoked images of Kirstie Alley. Oddly, I never saw these similarities during prior efforts. For example, Pyle appeared in Galaxy Quest, but I never noticed this sort of issue during that film.

Ah, Galaxy Quest - a spoof that manages to be clever, funny and endearing. None of those characteristics were on display during Josie and the Pussycats, an obnoxious and grating attempt to be incisive and wicked. Unfortunately, it just succeeded in being lame, as nothing about this film worked well. I’m sure the studio hoped to wring a franchise out of Josie, but these cats need to be drowned in the river.

A few random notes that also bugged me: 1) couldn’t someone have better trained the actresses to play their instruments? A monkey with a drumstick would be more convincing on the skins than was Reid; 2) It took ten people to write the song “Come On”?!; 3) Someone needs to tell Danny Elfman that composer John Frizzell stole his style. The score sounded so much like an Elfman effort that I was surprised to find someone else behind it.

That’s all - rant mode off!

The DVD:

Josie and the Pussycats appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though not quite flawless, Josie offered a consistently solid picture that seemed to be very pleasing.

Sharpness looked very strong as a whole. A few wider shots appeared slightly soft, but these were rare. For the most part, the movie was crisp and well-defined. Jagged edges and moiré effects presented no concerns, and I also saw no examples of edge enhancement. Print flaws cropped up via a speckle or two, but nothing significant appeared; as a whole, the image looked clean and fresh.

Josie provided a very wild and varied palette, and the DVD usually replicated these nicely. Most of the film utilized a stylized music video appearance, which meant that many of the hues seemed unrealistic. However, I can’t really complain about that, since the bright and artificial tones were intentional, and they seemed to be vivid and fairly exciting nonetheless. Black levels came across as fairly deep and rich, but much of the image looked a little too bright. This also seemed to be a choice made by the filmmakers, as they went for an overblown appearance during much of the film. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very successful, as it lent the movie a mildly harsh look at times. In any case, I thought that Josie and the Pussycats largely presented a fine picture.

Even better were the soundtracks of Josie and the Pussycats. As is the case with many DVDs from Universal, this one includes both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes. As usual, the DTS edition was mastered at a slightly higher volume level, though this wasn’t extreme. Also as usual, I found that once I compensated for those variations, the two tracks sounded virtually identical. I could discern no substantial improvements on one mix or the other.

The soundfield of Josie offered a surprisingly engaging and lively affair for this sort of movie. As one might expect, music dominated the track, and during many of the songs all five speakers provided involving audio. These elements could be a little erratic, as some tunes took better advantage of the set-up, but as a whole, I thought they showed good stereo separation and they attacked the environment compellingly.

Effects generally stayed with ambience, but a number of very positive exceptions occurred. Cars and other objects panned neatly across channels, as did other elements. For example, when Melody demonstrated the plusses of being in more than one place at a time, we heard Reid’s voice pop up from all around the area. Also, when Fiona descended into her lair, the track provided a convincing atmosphere that made the effect seem more believable. This wasn’t a fantastic five-channel mix, but I felt it took good advantage of the possibilities and created a natural and involving soundfield.

Audio quality appeared to be consistently good. Some dialogue sounded slightly metallic and thick, but for the most part speech was acceptably natural and distinct, and I noticed no concerns related to edginess or intelligibility. Effects were clear and accurate, and when appropriate, they provided solid range. As I noted earlier, however, music remained the focal point of this movie, and most of the songs sounded terrific. On occasion, some of the tunes seemed a little dry, but the majority of them were bright, vivid and dynamic. The track boasted pretty solid bass response; the low-end could have been a little deeper, but I ultimately found it to sound satisfying. In the end, the audio of Josie nicely suited the material.

Although it doesn’t come as part of their series of Collector’s Editions, Josie and the Pussycats packs in a slew of extras. First we find an audio commentary from producer Marc Platt and directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont. All three were recorded together for this running, screen-specific track. Overall, this was a decent but fairly average piece.

A few empty gaps mar the commentary, but for the most part, the three managed to fill most of the space. As a whole, their remarks were moderately interesting. They covered some production basics such as locations, problems encountered along the way, and alterations made to the original plans. However, they rarely go beyond those fairly superficial topics; I would have like to learn more about the project’s genesis and the challenges forced by an adaptation. In any case, the commentary was a mildly compelling program, but it wasn’t a terribly fascinating listen.

Backstage Pass offers a featurette that examines the film. Since the show runs for 23 minutes and 50 seconds, I thought it might be more substantial than the usual puff piece, but unfortunately, I was mistaken. Although a few movie facts appear along the way and we see some decent shots from the set, the emphasis remains exceedingly promotional. Actors talk about their characters and their reactions to the film and everyone tells us how much fun it will be. Fans of Josie may get a kick out of this show, but I thought it was generally uninformative.

Next we discover a collection of three Deleted Scenes. Each of these runs between 45 seconds and 105 seconds for a total of four minutes worth of material. Actually, the title of this section is somewhat deceptive, for two of the three snippets are really extended versions of snippets found in the finished film. They’re marginally longer at that; we see a little more of Fiona’s party entrance, and we also witness a few more seconds of the sequence in which Wyatt berates Josie to make sure she doesn’t learn the nefarious plot.

Only the second scene offers something totally new, as it shows more of Valerie’s concerns about Josie’s escalating fame. It displays an autograph session at a Target store, and while it isn’t bad - at least in comparison with the rest of Josie - it would have been unnecessary; the movie already lets us know very well that Val has these worries.

Three music videos pop up on the DVD. We find the two-minute and 50-second clip for Josie and the Pussycats’ “Three Small Words” plus promos for Dujour’s “Backdoor Lover” (three minutes, 40 seconds) and “Dujour Around the World” (two minutes, 50 seconds). The two Dujour pieces look like they were created as an afterthought. Both were filmed on the airplane set. A camera was set up inside the door to the cockpit, and it points toward the cabin. The singers strut and lip-synch to it, and that’s that. Oddly, “Around the World” also includes some posing from Cumming as Wyatt.

“Three Small Words” looks like an excerpt from the movie, probably because it is. This video combines lip-synched shots of the band that were seen in the film, and it also integrates additional movie clips. The song itself is one of the flick’s few highlights, as it’s a bouncy and aggressive little piece of power pop. Actually, most of the tunes created for Josie were pretty decent. The music video for “Words”, however, is a bit boring, since it just presents another montage similar to the ones found in the movie.

The Production Notes are surprisingly brief and uninformative; Universal often include pretty solid and useful text of this sort, so these details seem to be out of the ordinary. The Cast and Filmmakers biographies are also unusually short and lifeless. We find listings for directors Elfont and Kaplan plus actors Cook, Dawson, Reid, Cumming, Posey, Mann, Pyle and Costanzo. These offer mild elaboration on their careers, but they’re really just glorified filmographies.

We also find the Theatrical Trailer for Josie. Many Universal DVDs include promos within the “Recommendations” area, but that isn’t the case here. It lists some other DVDs we may want to watch - Bring It On, The Family Man, Head Over Heels and The Skulls - but no other material appears.

Although the DVD claims to include some DVD-ROM materials, this is a little deceptive. Indeed, when you plop the disc in a DVD-ROM drive, some features appear, but virtually all of these can also be found on the main menu anyway. The DVD-ROM area lists the same “Deleted Scenes”, “Backstage Pass” and music videos obtainable on the standard disc. The only additions are some Internet links; we get connections to Universal Studios, Universal Theme Parks, Universal Home Video and Universal Pictures.

While Josie and the Pussycats wants badly to be a hip, irreverent and wild comedy, all it offers is a moronic, pointless and grating piece. Its attempts to be sly and wicked come across as forced and silly, and the entire enterprise gives comic book adaptations a bad name. On the other hand, the DVD provides very positive picture and sound plus a varied roster of extras; many of the latter are somewhat bland, but they still are a decent addition to the package. If you’re already a fan of Josie and the Pussycats, you should really like this DVD. If you don’t belong to that club, however, I’d recommend you avoid this clunker.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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