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Dustin Putman

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Fame  (2009)
2 Stars
Directed by Kevin Tacharoen.
Cast: Naturi Naughton, Kay Panabaker, Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, Walter Perez, Collins Pennie, Asher Book, Paul McGill, Kherington Payne, Paul Iacono, Tony Longo, Kristy Flores, Megan Mullally, Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth, Charles S. Dutton, Debbie Allen, Julius Tennon, April Grace, Michael Hyatt.
2009 – 105 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for thematic material, a sexual situation and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 24, 2009.
A modern reinvisioning of the hit 1980 film directed by Alan Parker, 2009's "Fame" is unlikely to create quite the same splash. Like a tame, overly glossy lite-version of 2000's "Center Stage" and 2003's "Camp," both significantly better, this uninspired tale about a graduating class' four years spent at the prestigious New York City High School of Performing Arts feels underdeveloped and choppy. First-time director Kevin Tacharoen blazes so furiously through this large span of time that it may cause whiplash, and the individual stories he tells in the interim will seem familiar and ham-fisted to anyone who has ever seen a like-minded picture. Mix in some instantly forgettable original songs (most of them falling within the hip-hop/R&B/rap genres) and a good cast who nonetheless struggle for the necessary screen time to bring their characters to life, and what you have is a fairly lame knockoff of already well-worn material.

In "Fame," some of the students specialize in classical music, others in dance, and still others in singing and acting, but the one thing they all have in common is their apparent enrollment in Clichés 101. Let's meet the players, shall we? Denise (Naturi Naughton) has worked her whole life practicing to become a pianist, but what she really wants to do is sing. She's got a great set of pipes and even gets her first taste at the potential she has when she partners with classmates Malik (Collins Pennie) and Neil (Paul Iacono) on a track that captures a record producer's attention. The problem, then, is her father (Julius Tennon), who rules over the family with an iron fist and already has Denise's future mapped out in his head. Meanwhile, her mother (April Grace) stands quietly along the sidelines, looking apologetic. Then there's Malik, who needs to deal with his past struggles and be honest with himself if he hopes to be a successful performer. When his mother (Michael Hyatt) discovers the plan he has for his future, she cruelly asks him, "Who told you you were so special?" We never see Malik's mother again, this plot thread left hanging in the balance.

Other students following a commonplace Hollywood script include singer/performer Jenny (Kay Panabaker), who is having trouble loosening up in class and ends up on the couch of a young hotshot actor (Tony Longo) hoping to make the moves on her by promising her a part on his series, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend Marco (Asher Book); Victor (Walter Perez), whose crush on popular dancer Alice (Kherington Payne) is headed for heartache; Joy (Anna Maria Perez de Tagle), whose new role on "Sesame Street" gets in the way of her school work and puts her in jeopardy of flunking out; and Kevin (Paul McGill), whose future as a professional ballet dancer may not be in the cards.

Interestingly, eating disorders, homosexuality, and school work outside of the high-stakes performing arts arena do not exist for these students. In the PG-rated world of "Fame," everyone might as well be on a different planet rather than in the heart of Manhattan. Seen as just that—a fantasy intended for nothing other than cotton-candy entertainment value—the film passes the time okay. It's certainly brisk in its pacing—"Freshman Year," as it is titled on the screen, goes by so quickly it's literally startling—and a few individual scenes are effective. The best, it turns out, centers on voice instructor Fran Rowan (Megan Mullally), who takes her class to a karaoke club and performs the Rodgers & Hart standard "You Took Advantage of Me." Afterwards, she discusses how she gave up her dreams of becoming a singer or Broadway performer and turned to teaching, instead. Fran's rumination on what could have been had she stuck with it a little longer strikes a quietly poignant note. Also memorable is the "Halloween CarnEvil" the school throws, a gothic cross between a burlesque show and a traveling midway, and a montage that crisscrosses between the dance class performing to Sam Sparro's "Black & Gold" and straight-talking dance instructor Lynn Kraft (Bebe Neuwirth) giving the news to Kevin that he doesn't have what it takes to work professionally in ballet.

With such a big ensemble, the actors manage to leave their mark even when their actual characters are written by Allison Burnett (2008's "Untraceable") in broad strokes. As Denise, Naturi Naughton (2009's "Notorious") is a lovely singer and a natural actor, to boot; Kay Panabaker (2007's "Nancy Drew"), as Jenny, makes up for her somewhat limited dramatic range with charisma and earnestness; Kherington Payne (TV's "So You Think You Can Dance") is a stunning dancer and has a great look and soulful personality as Alice; Anna Maria Perez de Tagle is a spunky find as Joy, who, in one scene, is filmed getting drunk for the first time so that, as she says, she can gain "life experience;" and Cody Longo is perfectly slimy as the hunky Andy, a TV up-and-comer who has let his fame go to his head. Megan Mullally (2005's "Rebound") is terrific as voice instructor Fran Rowan, playing the role mostly seriously, and Kelsey Grammer (2008's "An American Carol") is astute in his reading of authoritative music teacher Joel Cranston. The one returning actor from the original fame, Debbie Allen (2009's "Next Day Air") is unfortunately wasted as Principal Simms.

One would naturally expect that the climax of "Fame" would bring down the house. The students graduate and take part in their final show, bringing together all that they have learned over the past four years, but it is terribly anticlimactic and rather dull. Little of it has the wow-factor of people destined to make a name for themselves in the land of performing arts, and that is the film's most crucial flaw of all. If we don't wholeheartedly believe in their full capabilities, then how can we believe in a movie that revolves around that very subject? Sad but true, this distaff "Fame" redux gives the viewer no reason to remember its name.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman