By 2003, Simon Fuller had ample reason to feel smug. He made the Spice Girls into superstars. As the evil genius behind American Idol, he transformed a garden-variety talent show into an international pop-culture phenomenon with a hundred variations worldwide. He made household names out of a perpetually slurring former pop tart named Paula Abdul, chubby music-industry lifer Randy Jackson, who was prone to calling people “Dog” for no discernible reason, and a glowering bully named Simon Cowell, who luxuriates in the public’s contempt for him.
Fuller was adept at playing the angles. Not content merely to pull in huge revenue from ad sales during American Idol, he larded episodes with product placement of the most egregious variety. American Idol winners didn’t just win a million dollars and a major-label recording contract; they also won the right to be signed to Fuller’s powerful 19 Management. Ah, but what if they didn’t want to put their lives and careers in Fuller’s icy claws? Too damn bad. American Idol winners are legally and contractually obligated to give Fuller their immortal souls, and also possibly their firstborn children.
Fuller was pop culture’s preeminent Svengali, a shadowy figure with the power to make freshly scrubbed unknowns into instant stars. But it wasn’t enough for him to conquer television and music. He couldn’t settle for creating pop stars. No, he wanted to create full-on pop idols who could segue effortlessly from smiling real big for the nice people while bleating their way through synthetic pop songs on television to smiling real big for the nice people while bleating their way through synthetic pop songs in movies.
So Fuller had it written into the contracts of inaugural American Idol contenders that the winner and runner-up were legally obligated to appear in a vehicle written by his brother Kim, who previously gave us the screenplay for Spice World. It was an act of incredible hubris, and so was Fuller’s next step: He planned to release From Justin To Kelly—the first of what he hoped would be many American Idol movies—to DVD a mere three weeks after its theatrical release. (Indignant theater owners threatened a boycott and shifted the date, but it still hit DVD 29 days after it hit theaters.) To Fuller, pop music was just product. Why not exploit every ancillary revenue source?
From Justin To Kelly arrived in theaters a mere two months after The Real Cancun. The vulgarians were once again at the gate. Reality television spread across the TV landscape like the bubonic plague, only with fewer pus-infected boils, and more Kardashians. (A fair trade-off.) Now it was threatening to conquer film as well. Filmmakers were already doing a bang-up job ruining movies. They didn’t need help from television.
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Fate was kind enough to snuff Fuller’s cinematic empire in its infancy. From Justin To Kelly marked both the beginning and the end of Fuller’s evil scheme to turn talent-show winners into movie stars. The public violently rejected the film, which currently ranks as the 20th worst of all time, according to the voters over at the IMDB. Justin Guarini, it turns out, was nobody’s idea of a movie star. Nor was Kelly Clarkson. Separately, they were overmatched amateurs. When they got together, lightning struck. [Adopts Robert Evans rasp.] Bad lightning! Onscreen they were magic—bad magic!
In retrospect, it was perhaps not a wise choice to make a musical rooted in the nonexistent chemistry of two talent-contest winners with the charisma of damp dishrags. But who could have known that at the time? Who could have guessed that Guarini, an affable young man best known for having a crazy turban of Sideshow Bob curls, would not burn up the screen when paired with a chubby-cheeked tomboy? Who could have foreseen that audiences would spend Kelly waiting for Guarini to try to kill Bart Simpson or step on a rake 17 times in a row, rather than rooting for him to get the girl he was contractually, professionally, and legally obligated to pine for?
In an interview with Time, Clarkson conceded, “I knew when I read the [From Justin To Kelly] script it was going to be real, real bad, but when I won, I signed that piece of paper and I could not get out of it. Two words: contractually obligated.” Audiences had a similar hunch when they watched, with train-wreck fascination and mounting dread/delicious schadenfreude, the film’s very first scene.
This introductory sequence sets the tone for the entire film: sitcom banter delivered with all the energy of a funeral dirge by interchangeable hardbodies with glazed zombie expressions. Clarkson plays a Texas waitress who, as the above clip so indelibly conveys, is best friends with Anika Noni Rose and Katherine Bailess. Fuller’s screenplay is considerate enough to fill us in on each character’s single defining characteristic—Clarkson is nice, Rose is smart, and Bailess is a party girl. And by “party girl,” I mean “evil.” In the script’s only convincing line of dialogue, Rose asks Bailess, “Why are we friends with her again?” Nobody seems to know, including the audience and screenwriter.
As my editor Keith noted on Twitter, the casting director of From Justin To Kelly faced the formidable task of finding actors who were capable of breathing independently and remembering their lines, and yet who wouldn’t overshadow Guarini or Clarkson. Their sidekicks had to make them look charismatic and magnetic by comparison.
Clarkson’s sour-faced scold wants nothing to do with the Dionysian parade of excess that is spring break, but she soon winds up cavorting through an elaborate production number opposite Guarini. They lock eyes. They croon in harmony. It’s love at first sight, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary.
Guarini is at spring break as a third of the Pennsylvania Posse, a trio of party promoters who don’t seem too keen on partying, with the exception of horndog Greg Siff. Here, Siff tries to school Poindexter Posse-mate Brian Dietzen on how to score with chicks. Using rap music! And beatboxing!
All films require suspension of disbelief. From Justin To Kelly requires something more like a temporary lobotomy. Nothing about the main characters or their relationships makes sense. Why does Guarini have a reputation as a player and a partier, when he appears never to have touched a drop of liquor or done more than hold hands with a girl at a church social? Why would Dietzen, a cartoon geek who tries to plug his computer into a rotary phone, work as a party promoter when he’s never apparently been to a party? In what universe would these people be friends? Or even casual acquaintances?
In this clip, Guarini and Clarkson re-meet cute when Guarini ducks into a woman’s bathroom to hide out from revelers eager to get a wristband for a “whipped-cream-bikini party.” Please stand back from your computer while watching this scene so you don’t get scalded by the sparks generated by the leads.
About that whipped-cream-bikini party—it has to be the saddest, tamest whipped-cream-bikini party in existence. The Amish throw wilder whipped-cream-bikini parties. That’s indicative of the film’s perverse dearth of sexiness. From Justin To Kelly is perhaps the first sexless sex comedy. It’s the most chaste film ever made about spring break. It’s PG, for fuck’s sake. It exists in a squeaky-clean Disney time warp.
Guarini’s 20 seconds of eye contact with Clarkson convince him that she’s his soulmate, but the jealous Bailess is inexplicably intent on keeping them apart through subterfuge and sabotage. After Guarini sidles up to Bailess and gushes about the “instant connection” he felt with Clarkson, she promises to give him Clarkson’s number. Instead, she gives him her own number, so when he sends her the immortal text, “Kelly, I O U A BRGR. U GAME? JUSTIN,” Bailess breaks his heart by replying, “SORRY, NOT INTRSTD. KLY.” See, the young people of today, they’re too busy to spell out long, complicated words like “burger.” Who has the time? They’re too busy Googling up The Twitter on their iPhones to spell out words in their entirety. Still, if you’re going to reject someone by text, at least have the decency to spell out your full name. It’s the least you can do.
Guarini isn’t about to take no for an answer, as evidenced by his later text to Kelly, “I WNT 2 TLK. MT ME @ MARINA @ 4. I WNT TKE NO 4 AN ANSR.” From Justin To Kelly is forward-thinking and delusional enough to tell the emotional tale of Justin and Kelly’s seemingly star-crossed romance largely through borderline-incomprehensible text messages. As Bailess, impersonating Guarini, later writes heartbreakingly to Kelly when it seems like the crazy kids will never get together, “KLY, SORRY IT HAD 2 END THIS WAY. GUESS NOT IN STRZ. JSTN.”
I can assure you, dear reader, that it most assuredly does not have to end that way. After spending the film inexplicably keeping Clarkson and Guarini apart through increasingly desperate means, a guilt-stricken Bailess, who only tried to steal Guarini away from her best friend because she was jealous, and also evil, brings them together for a finale in which the entire cast gyrates mechanically to a remake of the old K.C. And The Sunshine Band chestnut “That’s The Way (I Like It).”
Clarkson and Guarini make for such a terrible couple that they threaten to negate the great cinematic couples that came before them. Through sheer awfulness, they subconsciously chip away at the outsized legacies of Bogie and Bacall, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. They’re asexual, beige, and bland.
From Justin To Kelly tries to compensate for the giant charisma void at its center by piling on soulless, homogenized production numbers, extraneous subplots (does every one of the six buddies need a goddamned love interest?), and mindless spectacle. Choreographer-turned-director Robert Iscove will do anything to take the focus off Guarini and Clarkson, including, but not limited to, gratuitous shots of dancers pop-locking on the beach (hey, it worked for all those ’80s breakdancing exploitation movies), skateboarders doing tricks, and a sequence where Guarini squares off against a romantic rival for Clarkson’s affection in a weird game that involves baskets, balls, and hovercrafts. Yes, hovercrafts.
Yet Justin still feels ridiculously padded at 81 minutes. It somehow manages to be even less than the sum of its negligible parts. From Justin To Kelly killed a potential franchise in its infancy. There would be no joint vehicle for the next season’s winners—no From Ruben To Clay, though I suspect that even Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken would have stronger sexual chemistry than Kelly’s doomed leads.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure