25 AUGUST 2001, Page 42

Josie and the Pussycats (PG, selected cinemas)

The wrong tune

Mark Steyn

If you don't remember Josie and the Pussycats, relax: there isn't anything to remember. In the Seventies, they had their own comic book and their own TV cartoon series. My vague memories got vaguer the more I tried to bring them into focus: as I recalled, in the comic they were three girls in a pop group who mooched around the small town of Riverdale having difficulties with boys, etc., while in the TV show they were three girls in a pop group who went around solving mysteries, This seemed inconsistent, like Hercule Poirot being a Belgian detective on his TV show but a Belgian angst-ridden teenager in the books. Nonetheless, my memories are essentially accurate, the addition of the crime-solving element suggesting that even 30 years ago the TV adaptors had found Josie and her chums somewhat empty vessels. They're really Josie and the Cheshire Cats, fading away before your eyes leaving nothing behind but their cute little Junior Playboy leopardskin ears. These leopards can't change their spots because they don't have any to begin with. The only question is whether you can paint some on.

In the prologue, it almost seems as if they've pulled it off. Alan Cumming is the drawling Brit music biz exec whose job is to chaperone a prefab boy band, amusingly called DuJour. They land, sing their song (I'm Your Backdoor Lover.), and get back on the plane, whereupon the boys start whining to Wyatt (Cumming) about a multitude of disasters — the way the limitededition Coke can uses an out-of-date picture showing one of the band with a goatee, etc. This scene doesn't exactly have nuance, but it does have details: I like the way the band members wear their switchboard operators' headsets off-stage too, and their habit of resolving every dispute with affirmations of solidarity — DuJour means family', DuJour means hygiene'. Wyatt notes their concerns and goes into the cockpit, where he instructs the pilot, 'Take the Chevy to the levee', at which point the two men don parachutes and bail out. As the plane nosedives into the mountains, the last we hear from the bewildered boy band is DuJour means crash positions'. Their fans are stunned by the news. The TV networks are in full obituary

mode: 'DuJour 2000-2001' reads the tasteful caption. 'Mega Records have yet to release a statement,' announces the shaken anchorette, 'but they have released a limited-edition commemorative box set.'

Alas, the Spinal Tap-dancing doesn't last. Back on terra firma, Wyatt signs an unknown girl group called Josie and the Pussycats. There's Josie, who sings lead; Melody, who's a ditz; and Valerie, who's black. That's all anyone seems to know about them. The plot, meanwhile, has moved on to a complicated scheme in which the Pentagon implants subliminal messages on CDs to make the kids conform and to make them buy American products. This, of course, is what the music industry does anyway, with or without the Pentagon's help, though it's devilish hard to satirise an industry in which Maverick Records is a wholly-owned subsidiary of AOL Time Warner. Still, this movie has a go. Pop culture, it seems, is nothing but a government racket, cooked up in a huge factory where the suits even invent the latest teen slang — 'Dude, that's jerkin'!'

Actually, it's the dialogue that's jerkin'. The script has a stilted feel, and its funny lines aren't really funny, so that the actors have to stand there and declaim them as if thereby officially designating them as funny. Alan Cumming and Parker Posey, his record-company boss, suffer especially. Both are accomplished actors floundering for want of anything to act.

But the great big hole in the film is the Pussycats themselves, who project far less personality across 90 minutes than DuJour do in five. Who are these girls? Josie, Mel and Val have no family, no friends, no teachers, no bosses, no boyfriends. You could make the same broad objection about Charlie's Angels, but Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu at least had oodles of charm. In one of many in-jokes in Josie. the trade papers flash the news that Drew, Cameron and Lucy have agreed to play the Pussycats in the upcoming movie. If only. By comparison, Rachael Leigh Cook (Josie), Tara Reid (Melody) and Rosario Dawson (Valerie) seem like backup singers in search of a star. Miss Reid's drumming is hilarious: she didn't even bother learning to hold the sticks right. Miss Cook is more plausible, but there's a roundshouldered sullenness to her performance, as if she's swallowed the whole goofy subliminal message thing, and no one wants to tell her it's supposed to be a comedy.

On the other hand, it's hard to get steamed up about this pitiful artefact, if only because it's upfront about its opportunism. There's a character called Alexandra Cabot (Missi Pyle), to whom somebody says, 1 still don't understand why you're here. I'm here because I was in the comic book, replies Alexandra. It's a better line than that used by Val as she clobbers Wyatt: 'You messed with the wrong pussy.' No, guys. The fellows who made this film did.