September 2000 was a great month for funny films in Australia: Scary Movie, Big Momma's House, Mr Accident and the wonderful Superstar, reaching us almost a year after its American release. All these movies fit into categories often shunned and derided by the culturati: broad, silly, trashy or dumb entertainment. Superstar confirms just how clever these dumb comedies can be.
I have never seen Molly Shannon present her Catholic schoolgirl character, Mary Katherine Gallagher, on the American television phenomenon Saturday Night Live. But I felt at no disadvantage coming to this film cold. With enormous zest and ingenuity, Superstar hurls us into the daily humiliations and frustrations of Mary's world.
Mary doesn't want much – only to be kissed by the school heart-throb, Sky (Will Ferrell), and adored by the world as a celebrity superstar. So she fixes her mad dreams on the first available showbiz spectacular: a concert sponsored by Catholic Teen Magazine. Grandma (Glynis Johns) opposes her granddaughter's ambition, knowing full well, from secret, past experience, where such folly can lead.
There isn't anything even remotely sentimental or uplifting about Mary's personal journey. Any corny platitudes about altruism or self-respect that she mouths are usually quotations from her favourite, sanctimonious telemovies. From start to end, she is twisted, tormented, vain and entirely deranged.
She is also absolutely magnificent. Shannon is a remarkable performer: one of the few female comedians allowed, in mainstream cinema, to go to the very limit of gross, physical burlesque. There is more than a touch of Jerry Lewis to the way Shannon can switch, in a split-second, from adolescent squirming to sophisticated vamping. Her ever-changing vocal registers and highly inventive relation to props and costumes keep pace with the general, shape-shifting frenzy.
Like Scary Movie, Superstar is built upon an avalanche of dead-on pastiches of movies and TV shows (my favourite skit being the superb Supermodel Documentary Hour). Carrie (1976), The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976) and Armageddon (1998) are only a few of the classics referenced here. But, where Scary Movie simply launches into such flights unannounced, Superstar grounds them as fantasy sequences wittily prompted by settings and situations – in particular, Mary's job as rewinder in the local video store.
This narrative mode brings Superstar close to such gems of the 1980s as Amy Heckerling's Johnny Dangerously (1984), Martha Coolidge's Joy of Sex (1984), Larry Cohen's Full Moon High (1981) and Tim Burton's Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985). Simultaneously, it draws a certain queer humour from the contemporaneous trash comedy trend represented by A Night at the Roxbury (1998), with which it shares Ferrell and writer Steven Wayne Koren.
Superstar is not always as incandescent as it could be. Director Bruce McCulloch (whose previous, debut feature, Dog Park , dribbled onto video in Australia) does not build and sustain the film's best set-pieces, such as a rousing group dance in the school canteen. And the whole affair is slightly anti-climactic: why couldn't we have seen an excerpt from the imaginary "Hollywood movie with positive moral values" we hear so much about?
But these are small problems in a film that gives such joyous, uninhibited pleasure.
MORE Shannon: Never Been Kissed
MORE McCulloch: Stealing Harvard
© Adrian Martin September 2000