There are times when I legitimately think that The X Factor is a fun and refreshing update of the formula American Idol pioneered, and then there are times where I really wonder why we need both shows in our crowded entertainment universe. The latter thought usually comes up when The X Factor drops all pretenses of even trying to be a different show than its predecessor. Case in point: Movie Night. On Idol it's often such an all-around disappointment that one wonders why the producers wouldn't either tweak the guidelines or get rid of it wholesale. There's only so many times a performer can come out with some Chris Brown track that was supposedly featured in their cousin's basketball team season highlights reel on YouTube before the whole theme starts to seem pointless. And then there's the obligatory Hollywood movie premiere, which doubles as the contestants' first big media event and their first chance to show their future handlers how good they are at spewing BS on the red carpet.
If that was the sole criterion by which these folks were being judged, Drew would be leaving the rest of the competition in the dust. “Justin Bieber is my favorite musician in the whole world, but Adam Sandler is my favorite actor!” she squeals, which made me question her sincerity for a moment before I remembered, oh right, it's Drew. This taste question ends up foreshadowing her performance that night, a halting rendition of Coldplay's “Fix You” (off the You, Me, and Dupree soundtrack, duh!) that is in no way helped by a background of splatter paint, neon ponytail extentions, and a dress that looks like something made in a Project Runway unconventional challenge sponsored by Hefty. And just as Paula is insulting the whole look, surprise! Simon reveals that it was all Drew's creation. Robbed of the what's pretty much become the de facto method of sidestepping criticizing the performer by criticizing the mentor, Paula gets flustered and snippy, but it was kind of cool to see Paula accidentally slam someone; she should try doing it deliberately now and then.
Prior to that we started off with Stacy Francis singing some song nobody had ever heard of off the Bodyguard soundtrack, and while I'm grateful that she, unlike so many before her, resisted the urge to do the obvious number from that film, “Queen of the Night” wasn't necessarily a smarter choice. Stacy shrieked and stomped across the stage wearing a pained expression through most of the number, and like Chris Rene last week, made the unfortunate decision of baring a part of her head she had heretofore kept wrapped in secrecy; in this case, her forehead. Simon said she looked “cute,” but Simon also said that You, Me and Dupree was one of his favorite movies of all time tonight.
Following in the tradition of Movie Nights past, many of the contestants were off their game tonight. Leroy squandered one of his first truly smart song choices by again failing to connect with the audience and never quite reaching the emotional heights the song demanded. Loathe as I am to say it, Josh didn't bring anything particularly new or interesting to “With a Little Help From My Friends” even though (or maybe because) it seemed like the most natural song choice in the world for him. Melanie delivered a fairly forgettable performance of “Man in the Mirror,” and the stodgy stage production (“POVERTY,” “ILLITERACY,” read the screens behind her,) and Simon's effusive overpraising felt like a sabotage from top to bottom. I find it impossible to try to figure out what Simon's goal is as far as shaping the audience's perception of Melanie or any of the contestants, but my best guess is that he just wants his little show to be exciting. That doesn't make any of this shameless manipulation any less dumb.
The two remaining groups both stayed more or less in their comfort zone, which is probably a smart idea: if it is in fact harder for the audience to connect with groups than it is with individuals, then it's probably best to pound their “style” into everyone's head, rather than try to branch out just yet. For Stereo Hogzz, that means more retro-tinged R & B (Christina Aguilera's “Ain't No Other Man” from the immortal cinematic classic Burlesque, obviously) and for Lakoda Rayne, it's going back to the most generic, inoffensive pop-country they can muster (Keith Urban's “Somebody Like You,” the unforgettable theme of the unforgettable romantic comedy How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days, naturally. Yay Movie Week!) Neither group particularly stood out, but Lakoda Rayne at least got to shake off the staidness of last week's number and have a little fun (they were smiling and wearing boots and sort of dancing, so I can only infer that that's what they were going for.)
So who actually did well tonight? LA all but tied Marcus to the mic stand in an effort to rein him in and more effectively show off his vocal skills for “I'm Going Down,” and it paid off (though he did eventually kick that stand to the side with the kind of dramatic flourish I've come to expect and love from this kid.) I still have a hard time watching Rachel Crow play “grown up” on stage, but vocally, her performance of “I'd Rather Go Blind” was just shy of flawless. Maybe it's time to stop Shirley-Temple-izing Rachel – after all, she's just a year younger than angst princess Drew (that's super weird to think about, right?) and her vocal control is every bit as mature. She was much more subdued on stage tonight, the forced cuteness all but vanished, but from what I understand the platform heels Simon put her in were killing her and she very well may have been about to burst into tears the whole time.
If it's weird to think about Drew being just a year older than Rachel, then it's just as odd to think about Astro, despite his babyfaced looks, being a year older than Drew. I've been ripping a bit on Brian Bradley these last couple weeks just because the kid is so precocious and snotty, but tonight I have to admit he won me over. It may seem like a bit of a gimmick to have a 15-year-old rapper on a show like this, but it's still very true that Astro is an underdog for the win. There's not typically a lot of nuanced appreciation for hip hop on mainstream TV, and I guarantee that a lot of The X Factor's core demographic would look at Astro's electric, well-written take on “Lose Yourself” and Chris Rene's limp, muddled reinterpretation of “Gangsta's Paradise” (“Pastime Paradise?” Huh?) and dismiss them both on the grounds that they just don't like “rap” that much. I feel a bit badly for Chris Rene for being run circles around by a kid in fake glasses, but humility and a troubled backstory do not always equal superior talent. And Astro may not be humble in demeanor, but he attacked the song like a person who is keenly aware that they have to work hard for their audience's respect, which in many ways is a more important kind of humility.
And now, my picks for the week, which I'll start including from here on out.
Worst: Stacy Francis
Most Improved: Rachel Crow
Going Home: Leroy Bell
There was actually a good two minutes tonight spent discussing the 2006 Owen Wilson comedy You, Me & Dupree. LA had never heard of it (“What home theatre was that released in?” he asked mockingly, making Drew's lip tremble because it had held the Funniest Movie of All Time spot in her heart prior to her lifechanging viewing of Jack and Jill earlier that week.) I can only hope that when he turned around to ask the audience if they had heard of the film, which prompted a rousing cheer in favor of You, Me & Dupree, that we had finally reached the low point of this show, and it can only get better from here.
The biggest difference between Steve Jones and Ryan Seacrest: I feel like Ryan would have egged on the debate rather than humorlessly tell the judges to move on.
In addition to a great performance, props to Astro for choosing the only song tonight that I would say is primarily associated with a film.
Tonight's intro packages featured the contestants' hometown supporters. Best by far was seeing Josh's boss half-heartedly wish his employee luck – you could just tell that guy would rather have his number one burrito boy back and thoroughly resents Josh's repeated portrayal of his business as a place where dreams go to die.
It was easy to miss Paula's second accidental Drew diss at the end of the headslappingly dumb Simon/Paula bickerfest, but it's worth pointing out. Paula: “I'm just being honest.” Simon: “Well, don't be.” Paula: “Okay, I'll lie.” (to Drew) “I love you.”
And last, but not least, some exciting news: I will be watching this shit live from the X-Dome next week and hopefully chatting with the contestants after the show, so post your burning questions and declarations of undying love in the comments.