During a recent vacation, I became strangely addicted to the slow-motion train wreck that is A&E;'s The Two Coreys. In my favorite episode, Corey Feldman, concerned that his tragicomic bud Corey Haim has become a hopeless pill-popper, convinces Todd Bridges and Pauly Shore to confront the lesser Corey about his substance abuse. As Bridges and Shore contemplate the task at hand, they're overcome with a profound sense of life's ridiculousness. How on Earth did they get there? What unspeakable crime did they commit in a past life to merit this karmic mind-fuck? I'm pretty sure at least one of them was Hitler, or at least a high-level Nazi. Even Pauly Shore, Todd Bridges, and Corey Feldman found the prospect of a semi-intervention featuring Pauly Shore, Todd Bridges, and Corey Feldman mind-boggingly insane. You know your life has spun out of control when Pauly fucking Shore is lecturing you about responsibility.
I know the feeling. There are times in everyone's life when the randomness of fate smacks you dead in the face. Don DeLillo, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Foster Wallace are/were masters at chronicling the often ugly, sometimes sublime preposterousness of the way we live. They allow readers to take a step back and see the things we all take for granted in a new, disorientingly foreign light, to see the bizarre in the familiar and the familiar in the bizarre.
I experienced a similarly uncanny sense of life's absurdity when I sat down in a small, cold room on the 16th floor of a nondescript building in downtown Chicago with a platoon of pasty, middle-aged men to watch a series of flickering images and shiny, happy noise called Bratz: The Movie, a movie designed to sell a popular line of skanky plastic dolls. Here's what the American Psychological Association had to say about these plastic pop-tarts:
Bratz dolls come dressed in sexualized clothing such as miniskirts, fishnet stockings, and feather boas. Although these dolls may present no more sexualization of girls or women than is seen in MTV videos, it is worrisome when dolls designed specifically for 4- to 8-year-olds are associated with an objectified adult sexuality.
Alas, those spoilsport eggheads in the APA were no match for the Bratz spokesman (you gotta wonder who he killed in a previous life) who defended the dolls with the withering retort, "The Bratz brand, which has remained number one in the UK market for 23 consecutive months, focuses core values on friendship, hair play, and a 'passion for fashion'."
Bruno Bettelheim argued persuasively that a proper appreciation of "hair play" is a vital component of every child's emotional development. And Abraham Maslow made a "passion for fashion" a cornerstone of his hierarchy of needs. But The Bratz's inspiring message of hair play, cultivating a passion for fashion, and friendship is largely wasted on killjoys in the APA and film critics.
At the risk of being angrily tossed out of the Fraternal Order Of Film Criticky-Type Folks, I willingly confess that film critics, as a group, tend to look as if they just crawled out of a sewer after engaging in spirited fisticuffs with an angry aggregation of C.H.U.D.s. Though TV critics are invariably dandified fops who dress in the latest fashions, print critics generally look like their ensembles were purloined from the donation box at Salvation Army and thrown together by a drunken blind man with a twisted sense of humor.
There's an evolutionary explanation for the slovenly, vaguely feral appearance of the average film critic. As a genus, they live and work in conditions of extreme darkness, not unlike the similar but more aesthetically pleasing sewer rat. Like vampires, critics shun the harsh light of the day. This is both because sunlight is new, strange, jarring, and potentially fatal to them, and because it has an unfortunate way of exposing to the world wardrobes composed largely of stained, hole-ridden T-shirts promoting Pure Luck or The Air Up There, and sweatpants with elastic waists. Incidentally, when I deride the fashion sense and hygiene of the average film critic, I'm mainly, if not exclusively, talking about myself.
So to say that the folks at the screening room were not the ideal audience for a movie about clothing-obsessed teenaged girls would be a little bit of an understatement. When the lights went down and the magic of cinema began, I had to wonder why Bratz was being screened for critics at all. Did the Bratzketeers really expect us to respond to their plastic product with anything other than snorts of disdain? Couldn't Bratz: The Movie just as easily be titled Not Screened For Critics: The Movie?
Bratz: The Movie's first sequence immediately establishes a tone of psychotic peppiness, as the bratz (they spell it with a Z cause they're from zee streets) approach choosing outfits for the first day of high school with disconcertingly orgasmic glee. Ah, but Bratz: The Movie isn't afraid to delve into deep issues as well. One of the girl's totally has divorced parents. :( Another, like, left her turquoise shirt at her friend's house.
Bratz veers into after-school-special territory when one of the girls literally runs into a boy who's cute but also totally deaf, and they have the following exchange:
Brat: "What are you, blind?"
Totally Hot Deaf Guy: "No, but I'm deaf."
Totally Hot Deaf Guy: "I'm deaf."
Brat: "You don't sound deaf."
Totally: "Well, you don't look ignorant, but I guess you can't judge a book, right?"
Ah, but Bratz isn't done teaching valuable life lessons about how the deaf are just like you and me, only hotter, and way better DJs. In the below clip, the hot hearing-impaired dude learns that being deaf and def are not mutually exclusive when a sensitive Mr. Chizips type teaches him how to fuck shit up old school on the turntables:
See, so he isn't just a brooding, telegenic deaf guy: He's a deaf jock who loves playing the piano, and is also an awesome DJ. He's got five minutes of screen time and 18 different facets to his personality. I half expected the deleted scenes to reveal that he's also an orphan, a Jehovah's Witness, a Monarchist, double-jointed, telekinetic, and an illegal immigrant.
The four bratz enter high school totally psyched and intent on ruling the school in their respective niches. "I'm owning the science!" enthuses the hot Asian science geek with rad cotton-candy-blue hair extensions. That line is followed by the record-skipping sound effect that serves as bad-movie shorthand for "Oh snap, something seriously zany just happened!"
This vexes the hot black cheerleader, who frets, "Okay! Work the I.Q., girl, but please don't lose your passion for fashion!" The message is clear: learning about science and stuff is all well and good, as long as it doesn't interfere with the superficial things that really matter.
Despite their oft-repeated promises to remain Best Friends Forever, the girls are pulled in opposite direction by their overriding passions. The jock abandons her friends to hang out with the jocks. The cheerleader kicks it with the cheerleaders, the hot geek blends in with the brains, and the girl with little discernible personality but a gift for making bitchin' clothes presumably hangs out with other girls with little discernible personality.
We then flash-forward two years. The girls' utopia of shared clothes and daily video-IMing chitchats has died an unmourned death at the hands of cliques and the narrow-minded tyranny of the school's most popular student. In a moment of haunting sadness and visceral emotional power, two of the Bratz reconnect briefly over their shared love of Peach Party lip gloss, only to watch their fragile bond dissipate just as quickly.
Then, with the help of some shopping-and-trying-on-makeup montages, the Bratz's friendship is restored. These montages contain the film's defining sequence, in which a gaggle of prepubescent girls gaze adoringly at the Bratz. In their infinite kindness, the Bratz decide to provide makeovers for these 8-year-old representatives of the film and toy line's target audience. The moppets begin as ordinary girls, a little awkward and ungainly. Then the Bratz slather on the whore makeup and transform their pint-sized protégés into creepily sexualized JonBenét Ramsey doppelgängers. Oh, if only they could reach through the screen and do the same for all the 8-year-olds in the audience! In spite of such blatant pandering, Bratz mercifully bombed at the box office, grossing less than $10 million in its domestic run, thereby sparing the world an endless procession of Bratz sequels and knock-offs.
The girls' bond and commitment to subverting the dominant paradigm threatens the school's most popular and ruthless student, a pretty blonde tyrant that Chelsea Staub plays as a cross between Josef Stalin, Paris Hilton, and Tracy Flick from Election. Staub's father, incidentally, is played by Jon Voight, though to be fair, he probably only took the role to pay back Bratz producer Steven Paul for giving Voight his career-making role in Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2, as an ascot-wearing, smoking-jacket-and-Hitler-mustache-sporting German businessman engaged in a decades-long, multi-continent struggle with a super-scamp who travels around in a flying car and never ages. Voight is, after all, loyal. And completely insane. (For further proof, check him out in David Zucker's far-right-wing Christmas Carol spoof An American Carol. On second thought, don't. You'd only be encouraging him.)
To thwart the Bratz's sinister campaign to spread fashion, friendship, and montages set to peppy pop songs across clique divides, Staub decides to throw herself a second Sweet Sixteen Party. The catch? In order to attend her chichi soirée, attendees are forced to agree to only associate with their cliques. Even worse, Staub hires one of the Bratz's mothers to cater the affair. In Bratz's dizzy fantasy world, even the girl without money has money. The film's idea of poverty is a mom who owns a catering business, and a computer-owning teenager who scoots around on a moped instead of in a sports car.
At said party, Staub humiliates the singing, personality-devoid Brat by showing a video of her singing "La Cucaracha" with mom/all-purpose ethnic Lainie Kazan. Ha! That girl totally has a mother! And she doesn't always look like a runway model! Could she be any lamer? Tragedy turns to triumph, however, when a sympathetic DJ fucks up the mix, and soon everyone is boogying to a totes hip-hopified version of "La Cucaracha." But triumph soon morphs back into tragedy when a party elephant kicks Staub into the pool. An apoplectic Staub blames the Bratz for ruining her party.
Suddenly, the same classmates who embraced the Bratz as liberators from the tyranny of cliques and popular girls shun the fashion-forward foursome for costing them sweet-ass Sweet Sixteen gift bags. Clearly, only a climactic performance of a song espousing the values of "Brattitude" at the big talent show can set things right and put Staub in her place. Staub and her nemeses are all about clothes, glamour, and performing forgettable synth-pop ditties. The crucial difference is that Staub uses clothes and generic dance-pop to destroy; the Bratz use it to uplift and edutain.
"This is why the terrorists hate us," I wrote in the concluding line to my original Bratz review. I also wrote, "It would be hard to find another film that so nakedly, unambiguously celebrates the cancers of contemporary culture, from rampant consumerism to new-technology mania to the tarting-up of teen girls to bubblegum pop to My Super Sweet 16." Yet I gave the film a C-. This puzzled readers. How could a film embodying so much that's wrong in our culture receive a grade higher than a D-?
That's a valid question, but I try to reserve the F—and the D-, which readers have charmingly dubbed the gentleman's F—for movies that fill me with a visceral sense of hate. But watching Bratz, I was filled with a sense of profound amusement, albeit not with the film so much as the culture that would produce such a tacky, preposterous little trifle. Bratz is far too stupid to be legitimately hateful or worthy of hate. It simply doesn't merit an emotion that strong or personal.
Nonetheless Bratz: The Movie inspired some very strong, very batshit emotions from the usually calm and collected Paula Abdul, who had a televised, highly public breakdown after learning that the makers of Bratz wouldn't be needing her services as executive producer/choreographer/costume and doll designer/key grip/best boy/caterer after all. Because it's fun to laugh at the misfortune of horrible people, here's a clip:
I was less amused by Bratz the second time around, in part because the insane incongruity of watching such an instantly dated piece of disposable pop-culture ephemera while surrounded by middle-aged men—including one very auspicious, beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning household name who nobly/unnecessarily got out of bed to watch a 10 a.m. screening of Bratz even though he was battling cancer—was gone. I was amused, however, by the DVD's coming attractions for animated adventures starring Bratz: Kids and Bratz: Babies. Can Bratz: Fetuses (when your womb needs a makeover, these style-conscious pre-humans take over!) and Bratz: Spermatozoa (you will not believe how they accessorize their flagella!) be far behind?
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?: Failure