Directed by Bruce McCulloch
Cast: Molly Shannon, Will Ferrell, Elaine Hendrix, Harland Williams, Emmy Laybourne, Glynis Johns, Mark McKinney, Gerry Bamman.
1999 82 minutes
Rated: (for sexual innuendo and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 8, 1999.
The popular "Saturday Night Live" character of the Irish Catholic high schooler Mary Katherine Gallagher probably doesn't have a more avid fan than myself. Watching the dwindling SNL each week, mostly in hopes of seeing the effervescent Molly Shannon portray the clumsy, yet sweet, underdog who dreams of being a success in whatever she sets out to do, Mary Katherine Gallagher stands as a role model albeit an exaggerated one for a lot of young people who may not be the prettiest or most popular, but who have a good soul and remain true to themselves.
There was a lot of hope on my part that "Superstar," the character's debut feature film adaptation, would be a successful and bright comedy, one with a lot of heart and a lot of laughs, and with the always-entertaining Shannon on-board, I doubted it could fail. SNL-based motion pictures are too often criticized with the cliched statement that the movies almost always fail miserably because the usual 5-minute skits are stretched out to an insufferable film of an hour-and-a-half, but, for the most part, I disagree (unless the words, "The Blues Brothers," "Coneheads," or "Stuart Saves His Family," appear in the title). Even the critically-maligned SNL film from last year, "A Night at the Roxbury," was, for me, one of the most enjoyably funny comedies of 1998, far more satisfying than the uneven, overrated "There's Something About Mary."
That being said, 'guilty' would be the most accurate adjective to describe the way I feel for ultimately having to give "Superstar" a negative two-star rating. Although often outrageous, and outrageously rib-tickling, the film consistently does feel as if about fifteen 5-minute skits have been edited together, with three or four warm, character-defining moments placed in between, to pad out the running time to a far-too-brief, underdeveloped 82 minutes (including the opening and end credits).
The story is simple--almost painfully so--but it still could have worked had the screenplay been more focused and innovative, and the characters dealt with more satisfyingly. Unfortunately, the picture has been whittled down to a strenuously shallow concoction that, aside from its message concerning the importance of inner beauty, is only skin-deep. Mary Katherine Gallagher is a determined, accident-prone 17-year-old girl living with her loving, wheelchair-bound grandmother in "the ugliest house in the neighborhood, with the ugliest front yard, and the ugliest dog." Working part-time at a video store in which she gets to rewind the videocassettes as she watches her favorite movies over and over again, and attending St. Monica's Catholic High School, Mary dreams of nothing more than to be a superstar, "like the people you see in the movies." She also has an almost obsessive crush on the captain of the football team, Sky Corrigan (Will Ferrell), but unfortunately, he is currently going out with head-cheerleader/ice-queen Evian (Elaine Hendrix). When St. Monica announces their forthcoming "Let's Fight V.D." Talent Contest, Mary instantly knows what she's going to do: she's going to audition, and by golly, she's going to perform in the contest, and hopefully, will be able to nab Sky's admiration in the process.
"Superstar" is littered throughout with such delightful moments that it frequently starts to win you over, only for a slow spot to arise and sink things back down into mediocrity. The majority of the jokes are easy targets, and have been recycled from the usual character traits of Mary Katherine Gallagher, such as her tendency to fall over things, stick her hands under her armpits and sniff them when she grows nervous, and recite monologues from made-for-TV movies that will better express what she is feeling at any given moment. These moments tellingly add up to the heartiest laughs in the whole picture (particularly one sequence set in a confessional in which Mary expresses her feelings through a dead-on, perfectly-imitated monolgue from "Sybil," starring Sally Field), but while they work wonderfully and are especially memorable within the confines of a tiny skit, they plays as more of an afterthought in a big-screen movie.
Front-and-center is the incomparable female comedian Molly Shannon, who brings each and every one of her characters to vibrant life, whether it be on SNL or in films, which she has gradually, and deservedly, been doing more of recently. Although amicably appearing in supporting roles in "A Night at the Roxbury" and last Spring's Drew Barrymore vehicle, "Never Been Kissed," "Superstar" is Shannon's first chance to be the star attraction and shine throughout, and she does just that. Mary Katherine Gallagher is an earnest, likable creation, a person who is often accidentally involved in pratfalls, but is never demeaned or directly made fun of, and Shannon embodies the role with both sweetness and cheerful humor. That she is a 34-year-old actor playing a teenager (and this mostly goes for the whole "teen" cast) only aids in the picture's campy, almost innocent feel, reminiscent of 1978's classic musical, "Grease!"
Will Ferrell, as the object of Mary's compulsive affections, is underused and never really written fully as an actual character, instead remaining a sort of enigma throughout. Meanwhile, Harland Williams, as a silent, brooding fellow student/outcast who takes a liking to Mary, is a far more effective love interest, and Elaine Hendrix is clearly enjoying herself as the nasty, unredeemable villain, Evian. In one of the film's funniest scenes, Mary and Evian wage war in a battle of verbal insults that concludes with Mary practicing out martial arts moves that she learnied from watching a lot of Jackie Chan movies. "You're parents died because of their embarrassment of you," Evian heartlessly quips, to which Mary responds, "Well, at least I wasn't named after a type of bottled water." Later, Mary hilariously advises Evian to drink a bottle of herself.
By the time "Superstar" had reached its abrupt climax at the talent contest, I had become disappointed because I knew the film would soon be over, and what had come before was marginally adequate at best. Making matters worse, the large majority of its central comic moments were blatantly shown in the theatrical trailer and non-stop TV ads, and so they didn't work quite as well as they could have. Even when it somewhat recoups itself with a slightly unforeseen conclusion, and includes a crowd-pleasing moment for Mary that caused my theater's audience to erupt into applause (to which I almost was tempted to join in), the film is a major missed opportunity. Not only does it feel like a rush-job, but it possesses the exact aura of a skit, rather than a fleshed-out portrait of an admittedly lovable character. With "Superstar," Molly Shannon proves once and for all that she does, indeed, have what it takes to be a superstar; it's just too bad that for her first starring role, her marvelous character couldn't have been given a more worthwhile film vehicle.
©1999 by Dustin Putman