Superstar" is sweet, a little bit poignant and, in its own slapdash way, even endearing.
What it is not is funny.
But then, isn't that what we've come to expect from films based on characters from "Saturday Night Live"? When Chris Rock, at last week's big bash celebrating the show's 25th season, noted that the talent assembled there was responsible for some of the worst movies ever made, he wasn't exaggerating.
"Superstar" brings repressed Catholic schoolgirl Mary Katherine Gallagher (Molly Shannon) to the big screen, and excuse me while I stifle a yawn. In three-minute bites, Mary Katherine, with her too-short skirts, slicked hair and painful shyness, can elicit a chuckle or two. Apparently, that's also the best she can do stretched over 82 minutes.
Shannon plays Gallagher exactly as she does on TV, and if nothing else, you have to admire her feel for the character; you get the feeling Shannon really cares about her, even if most of us grew bored about the 100th time she appeared on the show. Craving acceptance, yet determined to go her own way, Mary Katherine is a girl to be pitied; strung so tight she seems constantly on the verge of exploding, she's the ultimate high-school wallflower, and she's doomed to stay that way. She's Carrie without the telekinesis.
"Superstar" plays out as Mary Katherine's ultimate fantasy. Seems her whole life has been devoted to one mission: getting kissed. Not just a peck on the cheek, but a long, luscious Hollywood-style kiss. The surest way to get one, she deduces, is to become a Hollywood superstar herself. So when her school stages a talent contest, with the winner getting a bit part in a movie with "positive moral values," she's there.
If you've ever seen Mary Katherine before, you can pretty much guess where all this is headed: she tries out, she embarrasses herself, but through sheer force of will (perhaps audacity would be the better word), she leaves her mark -- not to mention a lot of battered furniture and other signs of mayhem.
As a look at tortured adolescence, and the lengths to which a young girl is willing to go for acceptance, "Superstar" works pretty well. You can't help but root for Mary Katherine to succeed and exult in the tiny victories that keep her going.
But pretty soon, you begin to realize that what you're not doing is laughing. Which the movie seems to realize, too. Every once in a while, it grinds to a halt and tries to force some laughs from its audience -- for instance, when grandma (a game Glynis Johns) explains she's so against Mary Katherine's Hollywood aspirations because of an unfortunate tap-dancing accident involving the girl's parents. The laughs do not come cascading down.
Not helping matters much is fellow "SNL" player Will Ferrell, who gets to play both the school jock (the object of Mary Katherine's silent ardor) and Jesus Christ. A one-dimensional actor if ever there was one, Ferrell brings the same qualities to both characters: a sort of smarmy clueless-ness, an aura that says, "Hey, I'm in on the joke. Doesn't that make me cool?"
FYI, it doesn't.
Perhaps one shouldn't dismiss "Superstar" too harshly. The movie does have heart, and it does offer Harland Williams a welcome opportunity to prove he's not as bad as the awful "Rocket Man" suggested; he's quite good as the mysterious loner with an unrequited crush on Mary Katherine.
Let's just say that, as comedy, "Superstar" makes for good sociology.
Starring Molly Shannon, Will Ferrell and Harland Williams
Directed by Bruce McCulloch
Rated PG-13 (language, suggested sexuality)
Running time 82 minutes
Released by Paramount
Sun score: *1/2