'Spice World' likable if silly Review: The phenomenally popular pop stars show surprising screen presence and wit as they wink at the foolishness of it all.

January 23, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

For a movie whose primary audience is pop-addled preteens, "Spice World" is not half bad.

Admittedly, "not half bad" is hardly the sort of endorsement you'll find in bold type at the top of a movie ad. But considering how grating the Spice Girls juggernaut has grown in recent months, "not half bad" is a whole lot better than we had any right to expect.

"Spice World" is, of course, mostly an advertisement for the group and its two albums. It's long on songs (16 in all), but short on plot (wackiness ensues as the Spice Girls prepare for The Big Show). It's full of celebrity cameos, but they're impressive only if you have a weakness for older rock stars (Elton John, Meat Loaf) or British TV icons (Jonathan Ross, Jennifer Saunders). And even at a mere 90 minutes, it often drags embarrassingly.

Yet for all that, there's something basically likable about the thing. As directed by Bob Spiers, whose experience has largely been in British TV comedies like "Fawlty Towers" and "French and Saunders," "Spice World" skims blithely by such mundanities as plot and plausibility and puts all its effort into sight-gags and short sketches. So we get a dance school that's set up like boot camp, space aliens who are autograph-seekers and an Italian TV show full of butt-baring male dancers.

Logic? Save it for your math class.

Overall, "Spice World" seems less in the tradition of "A Hard Day's Night" than of "Wayne's World." It isn't just the media-savvy that goes into its portrayal of British tabloid journalism; there's also a wily intelligence within the film's self-mocking sense of humor. It's as if the film's basic assumption is that everyone in the audience is smart enough to realize how stupid it all is.

A lot of that wit comes from the Girls themselves. Scary Spice (Melanie Brown), Baby Spice (Emma Bunton), Sporty Spice (Melanie Chisholm), Ginger Spice (Geraldine Halliwell) and Posh Spice (Victoria Adams) may not be great actors, but they do have presence on the screen and come across as perhaps the most likably clownish pop stars since the Monkees.

Except that where the Monkees wanted to be recognized as serious artistes (anyone remember their movie, the nearly unwatchable "Head"?), the Spice Girls merely want to be entertaining. And entertain they do. Posh is particularly amusing as the group's self-possessed clotheshorse (thrown overboard and nearly drowned at one point, she wails in anguish, "This dress is dry-clean only!"). Scary makes her in-your-face brashness far more entertaining than it seems in press conferences, while Baby is utterly engaging as the group's airhead-among-airheads.

To their credit, the Spices come off as being considerably less cartoonish than the supporting cast. Then again, most of the secondary roles are there only to set up some gag or other, as when Meat Loaf, playing the group's bus driver, is asked by Richard E. Grant, as the group's manager, to fix the vehicle's toilets. "I love these girls," he says, deadpan, "but I won't do that."

And if that punch line sailed straight over your head (it's an allusion to a Meat Loaf lyric), rest assured that you haven't watched enough MTV to get the rest of "Spice World."

'Spice World'

Starring the Spice Girls, Richard E. Grant, Alan Cumming

Directed by Bob Spiers

Rated PG (mild profanity, brief view of bare buttocks)

Sun Score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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