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The same old song and dance

Nothing original about 'American Mall,' but there's a certain appeal to the MTV musical.

August 11, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

In simplest terms, "The American Mall," which premieres tonight on MTV, is MTV looking at the Disney Channel's burgeoning teen-musical empire and thinking, "I got to get me one of those." It's "High School Musical" -- but in a mall! Instead of a dance set in a cafeteria, there's a dance set in . . . a food court!

As if to ensure that nothing possibly could go wrong, the new movie has been produced by the producers of its model, Bill Borden and Barry Rosenbush -- although it must be said that MTV does have a right to the form, the music video being the ark that kept the production number alive through the late 20th century, supporting a generation of dancers and choreographers who otherwise would have had only cruise ships and industrial shows to keep them fed. Indeed, the current look and feel of the Broadway musical owes much to the intermingled influence of Disney and MTV. So, props, I guess.

The heroine this time is Ally (Nina Dobrev, "Degrassi: The Next Generation"), who dreams of attending the New England Conservatory, while her mother (Yassmin Alers), a former singer who owns a struggling music store in the titular mall, wishes for her only the safety of a business degree. "Life is not all singing and dancing, Ally," says Mom, who clearly has not been paying attention to the movie she is in.

Ally loves Joey (Rob Mayes), a mall custodian and rock singer with the body of an underwear model. When they meet, she fixes him with a look that says, "You may just be a janitor, and I may be merely the daughter of a woman who owns a failing music store, but we are the two most beautiful people in this movie, so come on."

Joey's bandmates -- one played by Neil Haskell, who finished third last year on "So You Think You Can Dance" -- are also janitors at the mall. Having had their gear stolen on the eve of a big break, they mime guitars with mops and dream of the day they will play real ones again. Joey blames himself for this loss, so when bad girl Madison (Autumn Reeser, "The O.C."), whose father owns the mall, waves new instruments in his face, along with the chance to connect with some of the music bigwigs with whom Daddy "plays golf," he hesitates only briefly before going over to the Dark Side.

"I know you want all the things I can offer," sings Madison, the Lola who gets whatever Lola wants. "I see your face next to mine on TV / Your band will play, and we'll all scream your name / You'll have cash, you'll have fame, and you'll even have me." And when has that ever happened before in a movie?

"The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be," wrote Ecclesiastes, "and that which is done is that which shall be done." That pretty much describes how things work in this game. Whether the people behind "Mall" are incapable of an original idea, or whether it has been decided on some executive level that original ideas are anathema to an audience that always wants the dish it liked last time, there is nothing new under this sun. (It shares so many plot points with the recent "Camp Rock," from the introduction of a love interest as a mysterious voice, to the villainess whose villainy is the product of a busy parent's neglect, to the climactic talent show in which true colors are revealed and all comes right, that it's almost as if they took that movie and dipped it in a big vat labeled "Mall.")

Even the primary text, "High School Musical," was cobbled from bits and pieces that have been floating around for ages; many are as old as the musical itself. (Ally's dilemma is not so different from Al Jolson's in "The Jazz Singer"; the denouement has something in common with that of "Singin' in the Rain.")

While I think these two hours would be better spent watching "Swing Time" or "The Pajama Game," I understand the power of the forcefully stated cliche and, of course, the even greater power of selling an audience a picture of itself. Director Shawn Ku, co-choreographing with Bonnie Story (a co-choreographer on "High School Musical"), does a good job of staging the big numbers, in which the viewer-as-participant is exhorted to "Get Your Rock On" and "Don't Hold Back." While the screenplay is simple and shallow, it has also been mounted with some craft and wit -- the film isn't dull, at any rate, and it's never too insulting to one's intelligence. In the same way, though there's nary a character here who deserves the name, the performances are mostly very good, with Dobrev especially appealing. Some of those old MGM musicals could be pretty stale and saggy between the singing and the dancing too. It's not good, but it's not bad.



'The American Mall'

Where: MTV

When: 9 p.m.

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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