Some things you need to know. Last year, Archie Comics fired artist Dan DeCarlo, who had worked for the company for over four decades and whose work, quite simply, defines the Archie house style. If you have ever read an Archie comic book in those past four decades, you’ve either seen DeCarlo’s work or someone copying his line.
DeCarlo also created Josie and the Pussycats. Originally, it was to be a comic strip-named after his Wife—until Archie expressed interest in acquiring it. When DeCarlo raised the question of his sharing in the potential profits of the Josie and the Pussycats movie and tie-in merchandise, he was told that “under the copyright law, as a commissioned work, Dan’s contribution to the creation of the ‘Josie’ property constituted a work-for-hire owned by Archie Comics,” according to a public statement by Michael Silberkleit, publisher of Archie Comics and co-executive producer of the film. At which point DeCarlo sued to legally establish that he created the “Josie” strip, and was fired. A Federal Judge dismissed the suit, while also dismissing Archie’s countersuit against DeCarlo. Since then, DeCarlo, in his ‘80s, has been hospitalized with triple pneumonia.
Lest this review carry this digression too far, I’ll say this: I believe Archie Comics was wrong not to include DeCarlo in potential profits for Josie, and wrong to fire him for seeking redress. Though legally they may be in the right, as most of us know by now, what’s legal isn’t always what’s just. Hey, legally, George W. Bush is President. And work for hire contracts in the comic book industry are notoriously unjust. Mark Evanier writes, “What the comic book companies have always done—what they did when their important characters were created, anyway—was that they maintained that you could be a freelancer but they owned everything you did as if you’d done it on staff.”
The reason I wanted you to be aware of the facts in the DeCarlo case is because I was very aware of them as I prepared to watch the Josie and the Pussycats film. I’d given some thought to the idea that even if I liked it, though I would say so, I would suggest that you still not see it out of respect for DeCarlo. I need not have worried. Josie and the Pussycats is so witless that I cannot imagine it finding an audience even in a country that made Tomcats (this has been a bad month for films with cats in the title) a top-five grosser.
The concept, since I can’t call it a plot, is this: Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), Melody (Tara Reid), and Val (Rosario Dawson) are a struggling band. One day they are discovered by band manager, Wyatt (Alan Cumming, who pitches his performance perfectly between oversized and sincere: he is the new Tim Curry). (Wyatt’s former clients are Du Jour, a Backstreet Boysesque group—that’s just a sample of the sparkling humor to be found throughout this screenplay, written by the directors.) Wyatt signs the girls to a major label contract, and soon they are the number one band in the world. But all is not as it seems. Wyatt and the CEO of the record company, Fiona (Parker Posey) have hatched a scheme in which subliminal messages are placed on CDs to compel teenagers to consume trends (“Pink is the new red” or “Orange is the new pink”).
How will our heroines foil such a dastardly plot? Flatly. This is yet another example of a comic book film being made by people who would never deign to read a comic book, and so feel free to jettison such trifles as motivation or depth. These people wouldn’t recognize the romanticism Frank Miller brought to Daredevil, or the philosophy Kurt Busiek brought to his Astro City. Not for them the remarkable psychosis of Paul Dini’s Harley Quinn or the generational drama Mark Waid brought to the Flash. Only comics. Accordingly, no one seems to have tried to make the characters likable or interesting. If you remember them from the comics or the TV show, you know everything about them as they are in this film. Josie is the bland one. Melody is the dumb blonde one. Val is the black one.
It is impossible to tell whether most of the cast is better than their material. Cook simply has too little to do with her character to enable her to rise to the occasion or even to try and fail. Josie is good. Josie (briefly brainwashed) is bad. Josie is good again. Any actress in her early 20s willing to dye her hair red could have played the part. Oddly, Tara Reid has the more challenging role: How can you play a beautiful, dumb blonde in the year 2001 and have an interesting take on it? Reid is certainly a beautiful woman, and when she has halfway decent material, as in Dr. T and the Women, she’s a halfway decent actress. And her interviews suggest that she is not at all a stupid woman. Perhaps that is the problem. Reid’s trying to act like she’s stupid, without any of the funniness that Christina Applegate brought to a similar character on TV’s Married… with Children.
Dawson has the thankless task of black actors from time immortal: her Val exists to nurture the white characters. She does a quality job, but it’s a part dozens of black actors have played in the past and (sigh) dozens will play again. The film obliquely comments on Dawson’s race when Val watches a mock episode of Behind the Music. At this point, Val has begun to worry that she and Melody will be pushed out of the spotlight by Josie. When she sees a (fictional) former third member of Captain and Tennille, notably black, complaining that he was left penniless and working menial jobs, it plays on all her worst fears. Now, I’m not saying I expected a Josie and the Pussycats film to have anything to say about race. But raising the issue in this indirect way seems like a sop to those who would point out the very vanilla ice cream world in which the girls live.
When the band members have their (brainwashing-induced) fight, lots of harsh words are exchanged, about who’s the “star” and who writes the songs. In reality, it took a jaw-dropping 18 people to create the soundtrack’s slight wannabe pop hits. But of course, as we’ve established, in the Archie universe, the person who creates something isn’t important. The girls pledge early on always to be “friends first, and a band second.” So, if one of them is writing all the music, we can be sure that 40 years from now, she’s never going to get the idea that maybe a creator should have a primary interest in his or her creation.
A word about hypocrisy. You may remember when actress Melissa Joan Hart, who plays Sabrina, the teenage witch (a character also created by… surprise! Dan DeCarlo) on TV, got into trouble with Archie Comics for appearing in her bra and panties in a men’s magazine. The publishers flew into the highest dudgeon. Well, I’m here to tell you that the title characters of Josie and the Pussycats apparently—very apparently—have not one bra between the three of them. They spend a lot of time jumping up and down in “girlish glee,” Reid never enters or leaves a scene without a show of cleavage (front or rear), and Cook plays one scene in a see-through top. And this is a film co-executive produced, please remember, by those same publishers. They’re shocked and dismayed when Hart decides to show another side (so to speak) on her own initiative, on her own time, and for her own benefit. But hey, if they can put cleavage and big jiggling breasts in their movie (and thus in the commercials) and maybe get a few lonely 13-year-old boys to shell out a few dollars some rainy evening, that’s okay by them. This film is, in a way, even worse than the evil Tomcats. At least that film was only trying (and failing) to be a gross-out sex comedy. Josie and the Pussycats has the gall to pose as a satire of what it transparently is. In order to show the wickedness of consumer culture, the movie has the women go to the (unnamed) big city to become stars, whereupon they are surrounded by labels and brand names… almost all of which are real. You follow me? Virtually every shot contains a product placement (I’m not kidding), and then the film plays the “advertising is bad” card.
There comes a moment when Eugene Levy, playing himself in an informational short that explains the villains’ plan to potential investors, says, “These kids today aren’t dumb.” I’m counting on reaction to this loathsome film to prove the first statement right.