Saturday Night Comic Book Movie Double Feature: Teen girl edition

“What’s the point of being famous if the people that hated you in high school don’t want to kiss your ass?”
–Wyatt Frame, Josie and the Pussycats

“God, just think — we’ll never see Dennis again. No, really, think about that. It’s actually totally depressing.”
–Enid, Ghost World

That’s right. It’s back after a very long absence (and yes, I know this is going up early Sunday, but I got started watching the movies late). Tonight, we have a pair from 2001 that both deal with what it was like to be a young woman right at the turn of the century. Or something. It does make sense.

I graduated from high school in the very late ’90s, which put me in college just as the new pop revolution was occurring. Even when we made fun of them, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC were omnipresent. We watched TRL even if it was just to mock it. We may have acted like we were so much cooler than this music, but we all knew it.

Josie and the Pussycats (2001) really wants to be subversive. It really wants to criticize the pop culture of the time — the blatant consumerism, the Millennials’ tendency to buy first, think later (see also, The Merchants of Cool, an episode of Frontline from the same year). I wanted to like it and I definitely liked things about it, but I don’t think it quite worked.

I am operating under the assumption that other than the key characters, this bears very little resemblance to the comic that shares its name. Our three leads are likable — Josie is played by Rachael Leigh Cook, who I don’t think we get to see enough of; Rosario Dawson is her awesome self as Valerie; and Tara Reid plays the ditzy Melody (cue sarcastic comments about how Reid is basically playing herself).

The Pussycats make it big, after a chance meeting with a sleezy record producer Wyatt (is there any other type in movies?) played by the always game Alan Cumming. His employer is the hilarious Parker Posey. In case you haven’t noticed so far, it’s really the quality of the casting that carries this movie. With others in these roles, it would be far less interesting.

And as it is, it’s not particularly interesting, honestly. Once you get the joke — Pop music has subliminal messages! That tells teenagers to buy stuff they don’t need! — it’s pretty easy to get bored. And considering you’ll get the joke about 20 minutes into it (if not sooner), that’s kind of a long time to be bored.

Then there’s the product placement. Look, I’m pretty much a fan of blatant product placement (I personally think Lady Gaga’s use of it in the “Telephone” video is hilarious) but this beats you over the head with it. There’s a fine line between “Ha ha, we know how goofy it is to have products in movies!” and “This is a commercial.” And this movie kind of crossed that line for me.Yes, a plane with a Target-branded interior is initially funny, but once there are hotel rooms covered in Revlon logos and a McDonald’s-themed bathroom, the joke becomes less and less funny. No matter how knowingly it’s done, it begins to feel like it’s just trying to sell you things, which is the very concept this movie claims it’s against.

It’s kind of cute and kind of funny (and I think the beer I drank while watching it helped on those accounts) but in the end, it’s not much better than disposable culture it’s mocking (and I couldn’t help but notice that Revlon’s Street Wear brand, which was featured prominently in a couple of scenes, is no more, as is MTV’s TRL. And what happened to Carson Daly anyway?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, but also from the same year, is Ghost World. Based on Daniel Clowes’ comic, the movie’s teenage girls are untouched by current pop culture and basically go as far to outright reject it.

We first meet Enid (Thora Birch) as she’s graduating from high school (well, almost — she’s told she still needs to take an art class). She’s the sort that’s too smart for her own good. To me, it’s not so much that she believes no one is worth her time as much as it is she just sees through all the pretense everyone else has. She doesn’t much care what anyone else thinks, or at least that’s what she wants everyone to believe. But Enid, undoubtedly, loves being herself.

As the summer progresses, she finds conflict with her best friend Becky (played Scarlett Johansson, before she was getting all sexed-up to be Black Widow), who wants to move on with her life and grow into adulthood, and friendship with an older, music-obsessed loner named Seymour.

I like this movie. But then that should come as a shock to absolutely no one (in fact, several coworkers have said to me “You’ve seen Ghost World” as if it’s a statement of fact rather than a question when they had no way of knowing otherwise). It’s the sort of story about teenage girls that doesn’t get told. Enid never got any sort of makeover or “taming.” Nor did she end up with a boy. She just got to be herself. She captured the sort of listlessness that comes with not quite being sure who you need to be, and director Terry Zwigoff lets her shine, and lets this be her story.

I do feel like the movie didn’t quite know what to do with Seymour in the end. His fate maybe isn’t cruel, but it does feel a little undeserved.

Still, that’s a pretty small complaint about the movie overall. I like the comic too (although it’s been a good while since I’ve read it) but in some ways, I think I prefer the movie more.

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