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Who Will Buy 'Josie's' Big Joke?

Movies: The live-action version of 'Pussycats' is a sendup of consumer culture--wrapped in mega-consumerism.

April 09, 2001|RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the new candy-colored big screen version of the comic book/TV cartoon "Josie and the Pussycats," the Pussycats--played by nubile starlets Rachael Leigh Cook (as Josie), Tara Reid and Rosario Dawson--fly on a Target plane, stay in a Revlon-endorsed hotel room, and visit a whale tank where the water's been sponsored by Evian.

Indeed, the movie churns like a turbocharged Cuisinart blend of every corporate insignia in America, featuring cameos by Starbucks, Diesel Jeans, Gatorade, Pizza Hut, Steve Madden Shoes, Coke and a McDonald's sign so large it hovers over New York City like King Kong.

It's a sendup of consumer culture--and one that in test screenings has sailed over the heads of most of the film's target audience of teenage girls.

"The fact that there's people who don't really recognize it's a joke, that's how bad everything else is," says writer-director Harry Elfont. The lanky, dark-haired 33-year-old and his fresh-faced, co-writer-director, Deborah Kaplan, 30, are taking a break from a last mad-dash editing spree to dine on salads in the Universal Studios commissary. The pair tend to speak in a fugue-like seamlessness, evincing an engaging blend of pop-culture enthusiasm, marketing savvy and unsuspicious friendliness.

"Josie and the Pussycats," loosely based on the 1970s cartoon, tells the story of a group of aspiring girl musicians who are discovered by evil record company executives and made into overnight stars, only to discover that the company is using their music to send subliminal advertising messages into the pliable minds of millions of unsuspecting teenagers. The Universal Pictures film opens Wednesday.

"There's an audience of, like, 8- to 14-year-old girls who just relate to this on a pure fun and pure wish-fulfillment level, where they're girls, and they're friends, and they're in the band, and they go conquer the world," Kaplan says, astutely dissecting the audience for the film, a viewpoint informed by the market research.

"And then there's a level from 23 to 40 that sees the satire, and then there's a small little section in there, that's still taking the movie a little too much at face value and is very idealistic. And they wrote on their test cards, 'I'm so offended, that you would try to sell stuff through this movie and who do you think we are!' And, that's what we're making fun of. Why would we have an Evian sign inside the whale tank? Maybe we were too subtle with it?"

Indeed, one particularly irate viewer wrote into the Ain't It Cool Web site with a second-by-second breakdown of the product-placement in the trailer, and fumed, "What kills the flick is crass commercialism," adding, "the movie is a mind-numbing montage of fast commercial images."

*

Of course, "Josie and the Pussycats" is coming from the studio that turned the anti-commercialism fable "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" into a merchandising bonanza, so maybe these critics aren't as dense as you might think. Even Elfont and Kaplan are gamely aware that they're trying to have their cake and eat it too.

"I don't feel like we're cynical in the movie, that we're saying all this stuff is evil," says Elfont. "I think all we're saying is be aware that this stuff is happening and make a choice. But the joke does continue outside of the movie theater."

"It's like, where does the movie start and where does product placement begin and end?" adds Kaplan, noting that they deleted a scene in which the heroines sign dolls cast in their image--dolls the studio is actually selling in stores. Indeed, a brigade of Josie products is wending its way into malls across America, and includes plush "Pussycats"-hairbands, nail files, makeup, T-shirts, guitars and wrist cuffs. Moreover, clips of Josie's stars are appearing in some of the advertising campaigns of the film's major corporate backers, such as John Frieda hair products.

The filmmakers say that one of the messages of the film is not so much "don't buy," but rather "don't buy mindlessly."

"The message of the movie is, be an individual," says Kaplan. "If some little girl is wearing a T-shirt that says 'Josie and the Pussycats,' I'd rather that they got the message of the movie, which is, 'I'm going to do whatever I want to do.' Not, 'Oh, I want McDonald's now because I saw it in a movie,' " says Kaplan.

None of the corporations whose products appear in "Josie" were paid for their services, but many donated a plethora of free products that helped the filmmaker compensate for deficiencies in its $25-million budget production budget. For instance, Puma provided thousands of T-shirts to clothe the extras in a rock concert scene.

"For the most part, it was very easy to get advertisers," says producer Marc Platt. "They appreciated both the film's ultimate message and its tongue-in-cheek quality, and, let's face it, they loved to have their products displayed."

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