Drop-Dead Gala

Sugar & Spice loses its local flavor at a film-board screening

It's supposed to be the evening's money shot: two thousand blond Bettys posing for a photo at the Historic State Theatre before the world premiere of Hollywood's latest made-in-Minnesota escapade, Sugar & Spice. "You're going to be part of history," promises WCCO radio talk-show host Tim Russell, emcee of the Minnesota Film Board-sponsored gala (which took place last Tuesday). But somehow all the hoopla--which peaks with this brief photo op for the entire audience, donning doll-face masks similar to those used in the film--feels even more inflated than usual. Maybe it's because the film board appears to be plugging its own allegedly "historic" PR stunt more than the film itself. "It's a great comedy by Minnesota native Lona Williams, who wrote the script," reports Russell, in between various Ventura-Clinton-Bush impressions.

But if the Rosemount-bred Williams (who has lived in Los Angeles for a decade now) wrote the script, why didn't this hometown hero of Drop Dead Gorgeous fame show up for the world premiere of her own film in her own hometown? And why is her name nowhere to be found in the credits?

On paper, Williams's second feature-length script promised to be of similar stock as her first--a dark teen slapstick satire, this time aimed at cheerleaders instead of beauty queens. The story follows Lincoln High School's sassy A-squad cheerleaders as they carry out a supermarket-bank heist after their captain--the all-American blonde (Marley Shelton), impregnated by the all-star quarterback (James Marsden)--becomes utterly destitute. Throw in a few trailer-trash types, a delinquent mother, and some other familiar caricatures, and you have another slab of Williams shtick--albeit without the regional "oh, you betcha!" gags, or even a discernible Minnesota backdrop. There are a few hints of the screenwriter's own past in the story, including one cheerleader's strange obsession with Conan O'Brien--whom Williams has earlier confessed to having giddily admired ever since they first worked together on the writing crew of The Simpsons in the early Nineties.

In the final product, however, Williams's typical offbeat violence--not to mention her droll commentary--gets lost somewhere in the plethora of teenage cleavage shots and menstruation jokes. With its cast of rising cookie-cutter beauties, including the American Beauty herself, Mena Suvari, Sugar & Spice focuses more on exhibiting young women in their nightgowns than on satirizing the vulnerable world of cheerleading. Guns or no guns (as you may have heard, it's tough to include heat-packing minors in movies nowadays), the rival squads from Bring It On kick these daddies' girls squarely in the booty.

Throughout the gala premiere's short-lived festivities, the movie itself is never really discussed--the reasons for this being clear enough after the screening. Film Board executive director Randy Adamsick is more intent on stumping for future board events than anything else, speeding through the obligatory thank-yous in order to introduce the evening's sole Hollywood attraction: first-time director Francine McDougall, who flew in from L.A. that afternoon, only to hop on a return flight even before the screening was finished.

Once Sugar & Spice has come, mercifully, to its end, and almost everyone has headed for home, those plastic doll-face masks from the beginning of the night take on a whole new meaning--seeming to represent the movie's chintzy post-Columbine cover-up, and the Minnesota Film Board's smiley-faced attempt to sell whatever remained of the author's original vision. Small wonder Williams (a onetime Minnesota Junior Miss and national pageant runner-up, by the way) preferred to see the generic pseudonym "Mandy Nelson" on the credits instead of her name. In the end, though, she needn't worry: Most locals will likely have forgotten about this "Minnesota movie" even before the snow melts.

 
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