by Mike McGranaghan

In Spice World, a Hollywood producer (George Wendt) decides to make a movie starring pop sensation the Spice Girls. A screenwriter innocently asks the producer if he thinks the Spice Girls can act. People don't care if they can act, he responds, people only care whether or not they're in focus. And that is exactly how I approached Spice World. This is not the kind of movie one goes to expecting cinematic brilliance. I kind of like the Spice Girls. Their music (while certainly not groundbreaking) is a welcome respite from all the gloom-rock that populates the airwaves. And I will admit that I enjoy just looking at them; they are five very sexy women. So as I walked into the theatre, I had no illusions of seeing a great movie. All that really mattered to me was whether or not they were in focus.

But even with my lowered expectations, Spice World is jaw-droppingly bad. If the movie sounds like a slapped-together attempt to cash in on the immense popularity of the Spice Girls, it is. The intention was to make a rollicking musical comedy along the lines of A Hard Day's Night and Help! But the threadbare story - tabloid photographer tries to dig up dirt on the girls in the five-day period before their first live concert - is not enough to support a 90-minute feature film.

The Spice Girls, for those of you unaware of such things, are Mel B, Emma, Geri, Victoria, and Mel C (better known as Scary Spice, Baby Spice, Ginger Spice, Posh Spice, and Sporty Spice). To their credit, they seem perfectly willing to indulge in self-deprecating humor. Many of the film's jokes play off the images of the women. For example, Sporty mocks the clotheshorse ways of Posh by saying, "it must be hard to decide what to wear: the little Gucci dress, the little Gucci dress, or - the little Gucci dress."

The rest of Spice World is a hasty pastiche of mismatched scenes, as the girls venture from place to place, occasionally stopping long enough to sing a song (early on, they do a mean version of "Say You'll Be There"). They stop to urinate in the woods and encounter aliens, take a joy ride in a boat, and even deliver a baby (don't ask). There are also a handful of dream sequences, in which the girls imagine themselves pregnant among other things, and half-witted parodies of other movies (including Speed). Finally, there are multiple music video-style montages in which they dress up in fantasy costumes (Marilyn Monroe, Charlie's Angels) and - at one point - each other.

I haven't even mentioned boring subplots involving their manager (Richard E. Grant, a fine British actor best known here from Robert Altman's The Player), or "The Boss," a double-talking millionaire played by Roger Moore. The Boss more or less dictates the career of the Spice Girls (a disconcerting thought given that their motto is "Girl Power!"). Most of Moore's scenes require him to sit behind a desk and bottle-feed milk to a pig. If you don't understand that, don't ask me, because I don't either.

Spice World spends an hour and a half running disjointedly from one manufactured "event" to another. There's a real lack of imagination here, as though all the movie needed was a dozen wacky situations to place the Spice Girls into. The humor is negligible and the situations don't really give the women a chance to express their personalities. At least when they sing, there seems to be some justification.

As mainstream as the Spice Girls are, I have always felt that there was a subversive quality to them (these are the women, after all, who pinched Prince Charles on the bum). A breezy, funny movie could have been made if some irreverent humor had been tossed into the mix. As it is, only one scene hints at what might have been. While at a hospital, a husband and wife come over and ask the Spice Girls if they could talk to their son, who is in a coma. I was all prepared for an overdose of sentiment as Sporty and Baby - tears welling in their eyes - introduce themselves to the comatose boy. But then Posh leans over and yells "my name is Victoria!!!!" into the kid's ear and he immediately awakens. Silly, yes, but I laughed loudly. I wish more of the film had embraced this uninhibited side of the Spice Girls.

I have to be fair about something. Although Spice World is undoubtedly a bad movie, my feelings about it were somewhat mitigated by the music and the sight of the Spice Girls themselves. If nothing else, I enjoyed just looking at them up on the big screen and hearing some of their songs. But it's too bad they couldn't concoct a better vehicle for themselves, something that had half a brain in its head. Spice World is a disjointed mess. Loved the girls, hated the movie.

( 1/2 out of four)

Spice World is rated PG for brief rear nudity (sorry, kids - not the Spice Girls). The running time is 90 minutes.

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