Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) is having a very very bad day. His harpie ex-wife Elaine (Catherine Keener) who happens to be the head of Amalgamated Film Studios cancels his contract. The lead actress in his new film (Winona Ryder) also a harpie walks off the set. The opening doesn't bode well for anyone with feminist sensibilities filled as it is with the farcical shrieking of these two women; the film seems to say that in order to make the ingénue look enticing all other women must be utterly appalling. Fortunately the device is used only briefly to set up Simone's entrance in the form of a hard disk delivered to Taransky by a dying one-eyed man. Simone a computer construct that is "art and science the perfect marriage " is destined the man says for the big screen--and he believes Taransky is the director to put her there. Considering his leading actress has just bolted the seed couldn't have been planted at a better time and nine months later Taransky gives birth--Frankenstein-like (he's not called Viktor for nothing)--to Simone in her first feature film. Of course Taransky has also planned to take his sweet revenge on the studio system and the Hollywood celebrity hounds by eventually revealing his creation but when she becomes an overnight sensation his over-reaching ego gets the better of him and he can't bear to reveal the truth and sacrifice his own newfound fame. His struggle to conceal Simone's identity and the length to which her admiring public and the paparazzi will go to discover it becomes an ever-escalating joke building to a hilarious pitch and an unexpected punch line as the creation's success threatens to destroy the creator.
Throughout the film and especially in the opening scenes the cast has a tendency to play the farce all the way up and over the top--and to a certain extent it works. The overblown acting style works with the themes of the film and eventually becomes the reason the dialogue plays so well. Keener's (Full Frontal) unique brand of awkward gawky comedy stands her in good stead here although she's annoyingly shrill in the role early on. Ryder's (Mr. Deeds) catty movie star ("a supermodel with a SAG card") and Pacino's (Insomnia) Taransky indulge in a bit of the stilted clunky dialogue we've come to expect from Ryder but Pacino more than makes up for that early scene during the rest of the movie. He's quite possibly the only actor who could deliver such lines as "A star is digitized " or "If a performance is real what does it matter if the actor is fake?" in any kind of meaningful way. He delivers his dialogues with Simone--which are really monologues because he speaks for her and for himself too--with intelligence and just the slightest hint of wry humor. He's the only cast member who doesn't entirely give in to the impulse to ham it up; he's funny without becoming a joke himself. Pruitt Taylor Vince on the other hand steals just about every scene he's in as tabloid journalist Max Sayer mainly because his character's never called on to be anything but a joke.
The unfortunate flip side of any farce is that the dramatic scenes are sometimes overplayed--and that's what happens here. It's difficult for the audience to follow the sometimes too-swift transitions between farce and sincerity and it's too easy for the actors to drift into melodrama which they occasionally do. When it's being funny Simone is great but its serious moments come off as a little shallow. Then again considering this is a movie about just how shallow people can be maybe that proves director/screenwriter Andrew Niccol (Gattaca). Simone recognizes that actresses directors producers studio executives and yes even the press all take the ideal of celebrity way too seriously placing too much value on image and not enough on substance. Scene after scene of outrageous public reaction to Simone illustrates Hollywood's insatiable desire for the famous; it's as if Marilyn Monroe had returned from the dead with all her charisma intact--so much so that she doesn't even have to be physically present to charm the masses. Simone has her own cologne. She becomes a pop star singing (what else?) "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" to crowds of thousands. A mad rush at a cocktail party sends a girl who looks like Simone hurtling into a pool; another girl wants to sleep with Taransky so she can feel close to the actress. As the movie sends up this lust for secondhand stardom it becomes clear that Simone a computer-generated image is more authentic than the people watching her. "Our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our ability to detect it " Taransky says. Beyond that Simone's sly ending implies we don't even want to.
As the opening song belts out fast cars champagne and caviar are what professional basketball player Jamal Jeffries (played by Miguel A. Nunez Jr.) is all about. In fact Jeffries is so taken by his own success that he doesn't sign autographs but uses a stamp. His Dennis Rodman-style antics however reach a breaking point when he strips during a game in front of millions of fans and flings his jock strap into the seats. The stunt gets him thrown out of the league and before he can say "slam-dunk " Jeffries loses his house his cars and his girlfriend. Desperate to work again at the one thing he does best Jeffries comes up with the mother of all schemes: He shaves his legs dabs on mascara and tries out for the women's league--and it works. But as he builds friendships and gains the trust of the women on his team he feels torn between his obligation to his team the Banshees and his need to return to a normal life. If you've seen the 1982 comedy Tootsie you know exactly how this film plays out. Surprisingly Juwanna Mann is not crammed with bad slapstick humor but is an entertaining twist on an old classic with a delightfully sweet storyline.
Nunez (Nutty Professor II: The Klumps) not only pulls off the Jamal/Juwanna character with ease but he pretty much steals the show here. His character comes off as endearing rather than obnoxious because he takes his role as a woman seriously and is never condescending about playing in the women's league. Nunez also delivers some great one-liners the best being when he is fighting off advances from the gold-toothed Puff Smokey Smoke. Vivica A. Fox (Two Can Play That Game) plays Michelle a fellow player whom Jeffries develops feelings for. Although it's hard to buy the sweet and almost delicate Fox in such an athletic role she pulls it off--but there is not all that much chemistry between her and Nunez. As Jeffries' crass sports agent Lorne Daniels Kevin Pollak (3000 Miles to Graceland) is seedy with just the right touch of humanity so his character is not completely despicable. The most cartoonish and unlikable character is Tommy Davidson's (Bamboozled) Puff Smokey Smoke. He has some funny lines but is too far-fetched to be believable.
Jesse Vaughan who directed a season of In Living Color makes his directorial debut with Juwanna Mann. Judging from the trailer I thought the film would be a low-brow comedy with a lot of overdone men-in-heels humor. I was instead pleasantly surprised by the film's storyline which--although it is a complete take on Tootsie--is short sweet and non-offensive. While some characters like Puff Smokey Smoke are a bit over the top Nunez's Jamal/Juwanna character is never clownish and well developed enough that you can't help but feel for his/her predicament. Some scenes appear to have a Klumps influence like the scene in which Jeffries is playing cards with his aunt and a gang of her senior friends but the overall effect is a moderately funny film peppered with some slightly funnier moments. Newcomer Bradley Allenstein had the sense to deliver a sweet comedy screenplay that was short enough and knew when to quit.
February 22, 2002 11:20am EST
The film begins with three ten-year-old girls burying a decorative wooden box in the woods while making a pact to remain lifelong friends. They also vow that upon their high school graduation they will return and dig up the box which contains items that reflect their goals and aspirations. Eight years later however Lucy (Britney Spears) Kit (Zoë Saldana) and Mimi (Taryn Manning) have grown apart. Lucy is the virginal valedictorian Kit is unscrupulously popular and Mimi is the pregnant rebel. On graduation night nostalgia gets the best of them and they decide to rekindle their friendship and embark on a road trip each with their own goals. Lucy would like to see her mom who abandoned her when she was a child; Kit needs to confront her fiancé in Los Angeles; and Mimi wants to enter a singing contest. They get Ben (Anson Mount) a mysterious stranger with a bad rap to drive them across the country in his '73 Buick convertible and in a matter of days--and a couple of 'N Sync songs--seem to forget how much they actually hate each other.
In her acting debut Britney Spears trades in her trademark Day-Glo tan for a more demure girl-next-door look. While she cries convincingly with puffy eyes and all her delivery seems forcibly understated and wooden. For example when Lucy breaks down and tells her father she feels as though she got nothing out of her entire high school experience she snaps out of her gloomy mood instantaneously when her father disagrees with her. Anson Mount (Urban Legends: Final Cut) who plays her love interest Ben is natural enough and completely suave next to Spears. Except for the scene where he protests a little too much to the girls driving his car (he literally kicks up dirt for what seems like an eternity) he plays the part in a down-to-earth manner without any showboating. The two sidekicks played by Taryn Manning (crazy / beautiful) and Zoë Saldana (Get Over It) are at opposite ends of the spectrum. While Manning comes across as sincere Saldana seems like she's playing the part of Hilary Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. For kicks see if you can spot former MTV VJ Jesse in the background crowd.
How director Tamra Davis went from helming the hilariously clever Half Baked to Crossroads is unfathomable. The characters in the film especially Lucy and her father are unoriginal and stick to stereotypes: the rigid blue-collar father who pressures his daughter into medical school and the all-too perfect daughter who constantly seeks his approval. And even though Davis also tries to camouflage the musical sequences peppering them throughout the film (Lucy sings to anything that comes on the radio including Madonna and Sheryl Crow) the movie still comes across as just an excuse for Spears to sing. More blatant is the scene where the threesome takes part in a karaoke competition in the dead of Louisiana. Although Spears' rendition of "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" is not that bad I don't know of any karaoke bars that have a DJ of that caliber (or have an emcee like Kool Moe Dee). Can't pop stars cross over into film without bringing their song repertoire with them?
January 31, 2002 5:51am EST
A group of high school seniors put a boy who is eager to become part of their clique through a cruel initiation prank that involves jumping off some sort of high scaffolding into a cloudy pool at a local cement factory. When one of them Landon (Shane West) gets caught the principal decides Landon needs to hang with a different crowd and assigns him to tutor kids on the weekend and take part in the drama club's spring play. Surprise-the plan works! In over his head with the play Landon seeks help from Jamie (Mandy Moore) a dowdy bible-thumper who apparently only owns one ratty cardigan. Jamie however is not your run-of-the-mill unpopular girl. Rather than being introverted and weird she is smart witty and confident-in fact that grubby sweater of hers seems to be the only thing branding her as an outcast. The two grow closer and Landon eventually sees her inner beauty forgoing his own A-list status to be with her. But Landon learns that Jamie has been keeping a secret from him that inevitably blocks their path to happiness.
Moore the underdog of the teen pop stars dyes her hair brown and dulls herself down for the role of Jamie a simple girl that loves to gaze at the stars in her spare time. She did a great job transforming herself into her character but in the process extinguished most of what makes her sparkle on screen. Mind you the script might be to blame for creating a character so unbelievably mundane and one-dimensional. Under all of Jamie's goodness and perfection is well nothing. West does a great job portraying his character transformation. Even while Landon runs with the bad crowd West conveys a sense of humility in the character. Peter Coyote plays Reverend Sullivan Jamie's over-protective father without being too overbearing which is refreshing. An almost unrecognizable and weathered Daryl Hannah has a small but convincing enough role as Landon's mother. Maybe it was her now-brunette hair but I didn't realize it was Hannah until I saw the credits.
In A Walk to Remember director Adam Shankman steered away from being overly sentimental. The relationship that develops between the teens is actually very sweet and interestingly enough the film ends up being more about Landon's transformation than about Jamie's faith. While the film is not as flaky as the rash of recent teen movies it still manages to fall into the same clichés. Though the story is very-dare I say-poignant characters like Jamie's in trying to be different have become a stereotype: The plain Jane whose personality and convictions win over the popular guy. Remember Andie (Molly Ringwald) in Pretty in Pink? Or more recently Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook) in She's All That? And though Moore has a beautiful melodic voice her singing scenes are too drawn out. We are not just treated to her crooning a chorus or two of a song during a church scene but the songs in their entirety. Even Mariah Carey spared us that much in Glitter.