Pompom and Circumstance

Criminal cheerleaders in Sugar & Spice give audience a rah deal

At last you can take a deep breath and relax, consumers of American cinema, for our trilogy of virtually unrelated cheerleader movies is now complete. Having reappraised youthful sexuality in But I'm a Cheerleader and celebrated ass-kickingness in Bring It On, we now accomplish both, sort of, in Francine McDougall's manic and messy Sugar & Spice. So gimme a star! Gimme another star! Gimme half a star! What's that spell? Exactly: **1/2, which is what this bright, fuzzy chunk of dryer lint would earn if we used a such a silly rating system.

The gist, as is readily apparent in the ads, is that a gaggle of high school cheerleaders put on funny costumes and knock off a bank, which is an amusing enough premise, despite the actual sequence being practically an afterthought, taking up but a few minutes near the end. What we've really got is a hyperkinetic setup, lasting for most of the movie, involving football star Jack (James Marsden) and head cheerleader Diane (Marley Shelton) who are, in keeping with their nomenclature, two American kids doin' the best they can. Unfortunately, their hots for one another -- ignited when Diane executes a back handspring smack into Jack's perma-grin -- lead them fairly swiftly into parenthood and its mounting responsibilities.

Cheerleaders take a vow of sisterhood, however, and Diane is blessed with a troop of easily identifiable caricatures to help her solve her little ditty of a dilemma. There's Hannah (Rachel Blanchard), the Christian girl who literally gets off on horses, and Cleo (Australian Playboy model Melissa George), who, like most people, scarcely contains an all-consuming obsession for Conan O'Brien. Then there's Lucy (Sara Marsh), the persnickety girl who applies white-out to scuffs on her sneakers, and Kansas (Mena Suvari), the tough girl used as bait to draw audiences into the theater. Together, there's no double base shoulder stand they can't handle, so they decide to rob the safe in the supermarket bank branch where Diane ekes out a living.

As if criminal activity weren't enough of a burden, the girls are forced to contend with a meddling, jealous goon named Lisa (Marla Sokoloff). A B-string cheerleader with an ax to grind, Lisa takes on the extremely improbable duty of narrating the movie for us, until we're forced to realize that this story is ultimately about her, not the tight clique of pep-rally hotties she so vehemently despises. Since Sokoloff cut her teeth (and a bit of cheese) on McDougall's 1997 short The Date (about a girl with gas), it's easy to see why the director shares with her their mutual feature debut. But since the funniest thing Lisa offers here is her profound assessment of Jack ("It was like he was a bar of chocolate and the whole school was on the rag"), her grouchy shtick grows old fast.

Much more amusing and charming are Shelton and Marsden as the fertile beautiful people, infusing their performances with a weird mix of sly exaggeration and plausible humility. Granted, 26 is a bit old for high school (just ask Judd Nelson), but perhaps being slightly longer in the tooth is what allows both actors to grab the material and run with it. Even when the oh-so-trendy mockery of middle America threatens to kill the movie's wit (as when the director opens fire on the barn's broad side that is 4-H), Marsden's inane jock and Shelton's deceptively innocent princess reset the balance. Late in the movie, when their dream home has become a pigsty, Shelton screams, "Don't Martha-freaking-Stewart me!" at her critical chums, then lets loose with some flatulence, fusing her comedic talent with her director's dubious specialty.

With Sugar & Spice, McDougall and fledgling screenwriter Mandy Nelson can't conceal their raging Heckerling envy (as in Amy, as in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless), so they simply opt to enhance their emulation with a coarser tone. (For instance, no pelvic function goes unexamined -- although, astonishingly, not a single male gets kicked in the crotch.) Together, they've also created a movie that's less about cheering for the football team than cheering for the entertainment industry. Kurt Loder and Jerry Springer obligingly whore themselves, and that damned Gary Glitter song ("Rock and Roll, Part 2") is employed for its Pavlovian crowd-rousing properties.

Moreover, as the girls prepare for the goofy anticlimax by studying popular heist flicks (including, naturally, Dog Day Afternoon, Reservoir Dogs, and -- for the Christian girl -- The Apple Dumpling Gang), the movie starts to seem like one of those annoying "Own it on video!" commercials tacked onto most studio products. This tendency also causes horrifying observations to pop up, as when one of the girls, viewing Point Break, opines that "real cops aren't half as smart as Keanu."

But overall, is the movie funny? Well, our friends at New Line are likely to be laughing all the way to the bank, as this spry tale of spry tail is poised to whip both the youth market and the libidinal market. Aching to expose the reality and farce of American youth, McDougall and Nelson hit us with everything they've got, and their energy -- cheap, recycled and predictable though it may be -- makes for a quick dose of disposable laughter. It's hard to avoid snorting appreciatively when Diane recites the lyrics to Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach" with sober intensity, or when Christian Hannah explodes into warning her against being a whore and a murderer.

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