The word for today is empowerment. There, I said it. A dopey and smugly pretentious little word, for sure, but one that's also pretty much impossible to avoid when talking about the one-two punch of Bridget Jones's Diary and Josie and the Pussycats, the two new movies on our plate for this week.
Bridget Jones's Diary, for the handful of people — OK, men — who might not know, is based on Helen Fielding's best-selling novel about a lovelorn, 30-ish working girl. It's a book that has struck what is commonly called a chord with a particular segment of the population and has apparently found a place of honor on the night table of every single woman of a certain age in the Western hemisphere.
Josie and the Pussycats, based on the vintage Saturday morning cartoon about an all-girl rock band who fight crime in their spare time, represented a similarly potent cultural phenomenon for scads of prepubescent girls back in the early '70s (pre-pubes who would now be almost exactly the right age to fully appreciate Bridget-mania). As an added perk to this seemingly infallible box office equation — in which the movies have literally got us coming and going — Josie will almost certainly benefit from the affections of a whole new audience: kitsch-loving, modern twentysomethings, as well as the legions of 21st century teens and preteen girls who just wanna get old before their time.
It might not be overstating the case to suggest that these two movies taken together — at least in the hopeful hearts of the films' marketers — constitute something not unlike a National Coming Out Day (or — gulp — Empowerment Day) for girls, grrls, women, womyn and females of all stripes. Men are invited to this party too, of course, assuming they know how to behave and keep their eyes focused straight ahead at the screen.
An English Everywoman in the limbo between youth and middle-age, Bridget Jones is single (although not by choice), slightly overweight, smokes and drinks too much, doesn't get on that well with her nagging mum, and finds herself constantly falling for the wrong sort of man (like her sexy scoundrel of a boss, impeccably played by Hugh Grant), while soundly rejecting the ones who might just turn out to be Mr. Right. The movie takes a whimsical, pleasantly droll tone, punctuating and commenting upon what's happening up on the screen with voice-overs from the titular diary, in which our heroine supplies us with regular accountings of her current weight, alcohol and tobacco consumption, inner turmoil and sex life. Not exactly the most original approach, but, off and on, a fairly enjoyable one.
An undeniable charm issues from many of the scenes and supporting characters here, but, for all the humorous winks, nudges, quirks and buffoonery, there's an inescapable blandness to it all, something formulaic and compromised that makes it difficult to completely give ourselves over to Bridget Jones's Diary. Granted, it's hard not to feel good about a romantic comedy that features a cameo by Salman Rushdie (and even harder to resist one in which all anyone can think to ask him is directions to the toilet). But then again, do we really need to hear, for the umpteenth time this year alone, yet another emotion-drenched, uplifting Van Morrison ballad accompanying that obligatory last-minute romantic plot twist — a "revelation" so obvious that any reasonably discerning 8-year-old will have seen it coming within the movie's first 20 minutes?
Helen Fielding, Bridget's creator, is on hand here not just as a co-screenwriter but as executive producer, ensuring a treatment that turns out to be just short of reverential — not so much in its faithfulness to the particulars of the book (which I can't really comment on, not having read it), but in its headlong rush to ensure Bridget's safety and, most of all, her iconic status. Yes, ol' Bridg is still properly frumpy, frazzled and self-abasing, but the tone that the movie takes toward her and her life — even shifting at times to slow-mo mode to fully exploit key emotional moments — just seems a little too eager to keep the edge off, while gathering us all up into the Jones fan club.
Texas-born-and-bred Renee Zellweger makes an appealingly vulnerable yet spunky Bridget (one of the more controversial bits of casting in recent years) but even when our heroine's at her most miserable, she still seems to have at least one foot firmly planted in Never-NeverLand. She's an UberSchnook, impervious to the minor slings and arrows the movie tosses her way and, consequently, it's hard to take any of it all that seriously.
Josie and the Pussycats, on the other hand, never makes any pretense of taking place anywhere other than Never-NeverLand, which is probably the chief pleasure of this silly little ditty. Rachel Leigh Cook (kewpie doll guitarist), Rosario Dawson (big-boned bassist) and Tara Reid (obligatory ditzy drummer) play the movie's pop-rockin' heroines, although the real stars of Josie and the Pussycats are Starbucks, Target, T.J. Maxx, MTV, Motorola, McDonald's, Revlon, Puma, Zima and the numerous other name brands showcased in what is quite probably the most spectacularly blatant exhibition of product placement since American Psycho. It's actually all part of Josie's plot, which concerns a group of evil music promoters using subliminal messages to brainwash America into a nation of mindless zombie consumers.
So you see, there is some, like, uh, social commentary here. The movie even opens with a wicked little satire of all things 'N Sync (the imaginary boy band in J.A.T.P. is called DuJour), although things go quickly downhill from there. Scattered gags are funny (two or three are actually downright clever) but way too much of the humor simply falls flat. Worse, the filmmakers show very little sense of pacing or style — two crucial elements in a cartoony project like this. Josie and the Pussycats drags so badly, in fact, that even the considerable talents of supporting cast members Alan Cumming and Parker Posey (who plays a villain with a pink inner sanctum where no boys are allowed) can't entirely bring it to life.
The Pussycats don't even get to really kick some ass, in fact, until the movie's almost over, another miscalculation that costs the film much-needed energy. What we mostly get amounts to a loosely connected series of fairly standard sequences of the girls clowning around, being chased by fans, posing and mugging for the cameras. It's cute and harmless, but all about as exciting — and not unlike — a Scooby Doo adventure. Just not as much fun. A haunted house or two might have helped. There's little here to distinguish Josie from such middling fare as the Brady Bunch and Flintstones sequels, writer-directors Deborah Kaplan's and Harry Elfont's previous efforts at turning silly, little old TV shows into silly, big new movies.