The Monkees may have drawn inspiration from the Beatles, but Josie and the Pussycats have humbler origins. The stars of a1963 Archie comic book, they went on to appear in an animated Hanna-Barbera TV series that ran from 1970-74. (Its last two years found the band stranded in outer space.) They were just a novelty act then, and even with millions spent to finally bring them into feature-film territory, that's what they are now. Though "Josie and the Pussycats" benefits from a few self-referential jokes (one character says he appears "because I was in the cartoon"), most of the laughs this movie finds appear to be accidental.
As reimagined for modern-day audiences, Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), Melody (Tara Reid) and Valerie (Rosario Dawson) have such limited personalities that they seem to have escaped from an idol-making factory -- like, say, Orlando's TransCon talent mill. Though they actually hail from Riverdale -- Archie's burg, remember? -- their home town vanishes in the girls' rear-view mirrors as an unscrupulous promoter (Alan Cumming) conscripts them to replace an equally synthetic male quartet named DuJour, whose members apparently died in a plane crash.
In nanominutes, Josie and her 'cats are heralded in Times Square neon as the latest discovery of Mega Records. But the company's president, Fiona (Parker Posey), has a separate agenda. That secret plan -- this movie's idea of corruption -- involves the almost-forgotten '80s hysteria over the subliminal messages allegedly hidden in rock recordings. (This time, having to play them backwards is apparently not a requirement).
Writer/directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont (Can't Hardly Wait) dally with humor -- Metallica and Christine Aguilera are among their targets -- but generally settle for flashy visuals that include plenty of tummy-button shots. The story threatens to veer toward serious issues when it seems as if Valerie, the African-American Pussycat, is being shoved out of the spotlight. But any such impulses are quickly smothered by happy talk.
The musical highlights are old canards like "Paradise By the Dashboard Light", American Pie and "Money (That's What I Want)." As for acting, let's just say that Cook, Reid and Dawson are pretty good at looking good and pretty, and that not much more is demanded of them. No one -- especially Posey, who vamps with barely concealed disdain -- takes the proceedings seriously. You shouldn't, either.
Even the most ardent Archie Comics fan is apt to feel a little cheated. Though various contrivances conspire to break up the group, nothing happens to substantially change Josie and company. A spoof of subliminal advertising is negated by the omnipresence of corporate logos, and any eruption of musical invention is immediately quashed. Some cartoons are best left in 'toon town; "Josie and the Pussycats" is one of them.