Fame (2009)

Was there anyone out there clamoring for a remake of the 1980 movie Fame? If so, was there anyone clamoring for a remake that drains all life and intensity and passion from the original, leaving behind a squeaky-clean, shallow, and dumbed down version perfect for teenagers? As we churn through Freshman Year to Senior Year, we will follow scads of teens (played unconvincingly by actors in their 20s) that aren’t worth our time. The movie is overproduced and utterly simplistic. Fame is a genuine waste of most of the talent on screen.

Apologies to the Fame theme song, but I was hard-pressed to remember anybody’s name even minutes after the movie ended. Literally, I was walking back to my car and for the life of me could not remember a single character’s name. This is because the movie crams about a dozen characters and gives little to no time to them for development. We don’t get scenes, more like snippets of scenes, snapshots compressing four years of life, and yet Fame also fails in displaying any maturation during that time period. I understand that the actors have to act like they?re plainly “acting” at the start, but the script doesn’t focus much on the rigorous training these kids undergo. Somehow in between one of the many fadeouts, the students are just better. Cutting to the chase makes for fine drama, don’t you think? Screenwriter Allison Burnett (Feast of Love) foolishly thought the audience would be more interested in watching the characters in sub-par soap opera dynamics rather than long moments of training talent. Inside the classrooms are expert teachers played by the likes of Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth, Megan Mullally, and the stupendous Charles S. Dutton. We would all have been better served by spending more time at school.

The structure works out to this: small character snippet, then song and dance number, small character snippet, then song and dance number. Repeat. But the movie’s fatal flaw is that it has no showstopper. This is a movie about forging talent, and yet the song-and-dance numbers feel uninspired. They look competently choreographed but there’s little to dazzle because the sequences are few, treated indifferently, and edited within an inch of their lives. We are rarely afforded the luxury of enjoying the dancing. At least the Step Up movies knew that the audience didn’t come for the story. The high points for the film include a Halloween party with some impressive stutter-stop gyrations (does the school have a production design class to make all those fancy costumes and sets?) and an improvisational jam in the school cafeteria. One kid lays down a beat, others join in adding texture to the jam session. Though I suppose the aspiring actors are left with little to do. This moment isn’t necessarily fully believable but it effectively communicates the creative energies that should be coursing through a school dedicated to performing arts.

I don’t care about any of these characters, mainly because these people are one-line descriptions of characters. These are cardboard cut-outs of characters, and they do a disservice to cardboard. Jenny (Kay Panabaker, looking like Ellen Page?s little sister) is the mousy girl-next-door who needs to come out of her shell. On the opposite end, Malik (Collins Pennie) is an angry street kid who needs to tap into his life experiences for acting power (Burnett also has to make sure the “street kid” character has a deadbeat dad and a little sister who was killed in a drive-by shooting). One girl’s entire story is that she wants to be a dancer and wouldn’t mind annoying her stuffy WASP parents. She invites her new Hispanic wannabe DJ boyfriend (Walter Perez) out to dinner. Cut to thirty minutes later ad she’s breaking up with him to tour with a dance company. It’s supposed to be a moment of drama but I defy anyone to care. Why should I care about this relationship or these characters when the movie doesn’t bother to care?

The conflicts are usually contrived (oh no, the girl with the most talent in the rap group is told… she has the most talent), mostly involving grumpy, disapproving, fabulously wealthy parents. Denise (Naturi Naughton) is given both of these aforementioned conflicts. Her father demands she play piano, but she wants to sing, so how about she can play piano and sing? It hasn’t hurt Alicia Keys. In other instances, the conflict makes the characters annoyingly naïve, like when Jenny goes to the trailer of a sleazy soap actor to record an audition alone. When the characters do get a chance to speak their minds, well, you wish they would go back to dancing or singing. This also has to be the first time that Sesame Street is responsible for a student flunking out (an actor student gets a small-time gig on the long-running educational show and can’t keep her grades up at the same time).

Let’s face it, in the world of performing arts not everyone is on an even playing field of talent. The movie stumbles early during its montage of auditions, which provides some comic relief in watching the hopeless and untalented. Mostly, this audition process is a blur, but Fame loses serious credibility points when it reveals that some of the auditioning students who WERE the comic relief actually were accepted! How does that work? The movie wants me to make fun of a character for being bad and then the next minute the movie tells me that this applicant beat out thousands of other aspiring performers. I’m sorry, but that’s a credibility gap that Fame never recovers from.

For dancers and singers, it’s clear when they have talent, and it’s easy for a film to indulge. But what happens to the actors? Everyone in the movie is already an actor, per se, so when we get treated to supposedly revealing monologues, meant to display great acting talent, it comes across as unremarkable. The only time I have been blown away by a actor auditioning in a movie was when Naomi Watts just became a different person in 2001’s Mullholland Drive. It was sensational the way that she oozed sensuality and took control of her audition scene. Is it too much to ask that the actors who go through four years of intensive work in their chosen discipline be … better? But my biggest irk was the pseudo-filmmaker (Paul Iacono) who displays no discernible talent. His biggest creative break that we see is taping a drunken student poorly reciting NWA’s “Boys in the Hood” and then vomiting. But wait; being an auteur, he also uses split screens. I really hate it when movies involve amateur filmmakers because it always goes one of two ways, either 1) the movie overdoes it to the point of parody, or 2) the movie underplays the actual creative work, meaning that there is no foreseeable impression of talent. Why can’t amateur filmmakers ever be authentically good in movies? In Fame‘s case, I never saw anything that would justify this kid’s placement at such an esteemed performing arts school; and HE was one of the opening comic relief kids too. Is there a legacy program that they have to adhere to at this school or something?

Now, Fame is rated PG but is it too much to ask for something a little edgier than another sanitized high school musical? For one thing, the movie dances around the subject of its would-be gay ballet dancer (Paul McGill) being gay. It’s implied in mannerism but that’s all the bait you get, folks. Any school that deals in theater, performing arts, dancing, and acting, well let’s just say that there?s more than one token homosexual. The original 1980 Fame dealt with sex, drugs, abortion, and the hardships of pushing your body to the limits for a dream. You don’t ever see these performers sweat. Instead, they sit around and spout bland “follow your dreams” platitudes.

The best moment in Fame is the end credits, and I don?t mean that to be disingenuous. During the end credits we roll through the various actors and they cut loose, dance, act goofy, and get an opportunity to be silly. And it is in those final moments where these people feel like people, where they have become unrestrained by the director and the screenplay. The movie itself is overly labored without having anything to show for it. The large amount of characters and quick jumps through time make it downright impossible to connect. Worst of all, the signature performance sections are few and lacking true style. This is a derivative, easily forgettable remake that doesn’t even know the right steps to be an entertaining movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

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About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on September 9, 2009, in 2009 Movies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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