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The Test of Time #2: Spice World

Is the lone cinematic adventure from the Spice Girls a camp classic or just a bad, bad movie? Let’s find out.

Spice World Poster

Spice World (1997)

Starring: Baby Spice, Ginger Spice, Posh Spice, Scary Spice, Sporty Spice, Richard E. Grant, Claire Rushbrook, Richard O’Brien, Naoko Mori, Roger Moore

Written by: Kim Fuller (with ideas by The Spice Girls and additional writing by Jamie Curtis)

Directed by: Bob Spiers (“Absolutely Fabulous”)

What Is It: An homage to A Hard Day’s Night starring The Spice Girls, one of the most popular musical acts of the 1990s, as themselves, in a candy-coloured cornucopia of comedy sketches, celebrity cameos and odes to British popular culture.

What Critics Said: “One of the weaker semi-mockumentaries in a while. Honestly, if it weren't for a) Posh Spice's dazzling cheekbones and b) the eternal mystery of why we never get to see Sporty's legs (a rash? botched prison tattoos? what?), there wouldn't be much here to hold the interest of anyone other than Princes William and Harry.” – Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle

What Audiences Said: Spice World earned a modest $29 million at the box office, coming in second on its opening weekend to Titanic, then in its sixth week of release. Fans of the Spice Girls generally appreciate the film as a harmless camp explosion of “Girl Power” enthusiasm. Haters typically write the film off as a disaster sight unseen.

The Test of Time Spice World

The Test of Time:

I remember the Spice Girls. They were hard to avoid in the late 1990s thanks to a string of catchy, gormless pop songs with lyrics like, “If you want to be my lover you got to get with my friends,” which I initially interpreted as an open invitation to a six-way, and I would – in my pubescent stupor – have probably taken them up on that. The Spice Girls were a quintet of attractive singers defined, at least originally, by their individualized fashion senses: Sporty Spice, aka Melanie Chisholm, wore brightly colored tracksuits. Baby Spice, aka Emma Bunton, wore long blonde pigtails and always seemed to have a lollipop hanging from her pouty lips. And so on. They were highly sexualized pop icons espousing “Girl Power” as a form of Neo-Feminism, one that demanded liberation while simultaneously embracing many of the diaphanous, shackling accoutrements and behavior that are forced upon women across the Western World by popular culture. It was an intentionally ironic sentiment, I’m pretty sure of that, but Madonna did it better.

Spice World Singing

So I was amused, but not sufficiently impressed, by The Spice Girls in their heyday. I appreciated their music on a surface level, because that’s about all there was to it, but I never really bought into the singers as icons or role models. As such, I never even saw Spice World until about a week ago, when I decided to cover the film for The Test of Time in order see just how bad – or just how good – it could possibly be when viewed at an objective distance. What I discovered is a film that’s as deeply mismatched as the Spice Girls’ image always seemed to be: watchable without being terribly funny, brimming with ideas but none of them terribly interesting, and promoting feminism while indulging in vaguely sexist clichés. It’s fan service, with The Spice Girls apparently being their own biggest fans, except perhaps for my sister, who is probably beating the screen with her bare fists while she reads this.

The plot, thin as it is, follows The Spice Girls in their own double-decker bus – it’s bigger on the inside – as they travel through Europe (mostly England) preparing for their first live performance… except for all the other live shows they give throughout the movie. Their enthusiasm for random adventures and life in general runs counter to their hectic celebrity schedule, maintained by their manager Clifford, played by Richard E. Grant, and his assistant Deborah, played by Claire Rushbrook, who develop a romantic subplot because the Spice Girls think they should, not because they have any actual chemistry.

Spice World Spice Girls

The contrast between celebrity wish fulfillment and the practicalities of driving a global economic machine is at least a decent source of drama, and Spice World probably does a better job of illustrating that dichotomy than A Hard Day’s Night did. That, however, is the only thing Spice World does better than A Hard Day’s Night. Richard Lester’s 1964 film was similarly freewheeling as it followed a popular Brit-Pop band on their way to the next big gig, but A Hard Day’s Night felt fresh at the time, embracing the burgeoning, renegade French New Wave aesthetic and combining it with the likable, Ealing-esque British comedy of the day. Spice World, in contrast, feels so beholden to A Hard Day’s Night, a film over 30 years its senior, that it never forges its own identity. It’s not a new film. It’s an old film that just happens to have the Spice Girls in it.

It might have worked, too, if the Spice Girls had enough personality to make this film their own, but they’re so committed to being good-natured that they never do anything interesting. The closest they come is a chipper montage in which they rebel against their own carefully crafted individual personae by dressing up as each other. Posh Spice dresses up as Baby Spice, Scary Spice dresses up as Ginger Spice, etc. Afterwards, they decide that they’re happier the way they were, presenting the unfortunate but rather clear message that Baby, Ginger, Posh, Scary and Sporty are nothing more than their respective stage names suggest.

Spice World Posh Spice Baby Spice

And even that might have worked if, instead of merely dressing up as each other, they had attempted to actually interact with the world from the perspective of their friends. Ginger, for example, was typically the mouthpiece of the group; what would have happened if she had ceded that responsibility to Posh, or even Baby? Would things have gone badly? Would we have discovered what made them function as a successful pop group by showing just how easily they could fall apart if they living up to their namesakes? We might have even appreciated them as individuals as well as unit. They might – as strange as this sounds – have even been the driving force of their own movie.

Instead, all of the plot points in Spice World come from outside the heroines, leading to a mostly unfunny potpourri of random comic set pieces and distracting cameos. Elton John appears in the film’s opening minutes, for example. He makes about ten seconds of small talk, and then walks out of the movie, looking confused as to why he was there in the first place. Bob Hoskins appears in a bizarre fantasy interlude where Ginger Spice does a “Wonder Woman” spin, transforming into the stout star of Super Mario Bros. who then says “Girl Power” right into the camera. I guess his kids talked him into it? Or maybe his agent? Or maybe his kids are his agent, I don’t even know.

Spice World Roger Moore

Most curious of all is Roger Moore, who plays an all-powerful puppet master who… actually I have no idea. Richard E. Grant always calls Roger Moore on the phone whenever he’s having trouble keeping The Spice Girls in line, and Moore always appears on the other end in his James Bond supervillain penthouse apartment, nursing baby pigs and spouting increasingly confusing Zen koans. Does Roger Moore “own” The Spice Girls? Is he the bad guy, tearing them away from their individual lives and forcing them into a corporate machine that drives the entire British economy? Or, would that make him the good guy, trying to get these flighty heroines to grow up a little, accept their responsibility to the nation and serve an actual function in society by embracing their marketable individuality but tempering it with just enough discipline to do their actual jobs?

That’s part of the problem with Spice World. It seems to espouse a philosophy, but it’s pretty damned vague about what that philosophy actually is. “Girl Power” is very poorly defined in Spice World. At one point, the Spice Girls go to Italy for a show, only to react with absolute disapproval when their backup dancers turn out to be shirtless hunks with cartoonishly large codpieces. Okay, yeah, that’s a little dehumanizing. Good for them for not going along with it. But then why is their compromise – which they are 100% okay with – telling those same dancers to instead wear ass-less leisure jumpsuits?

Spice World Codpiece

What have we learned here? What do they stand for? Or, if they stand for nothing (which would be fine, by the way), why make such a big damned point of empowering girls? Never mind “women” mind you, only “girls.” That’s interesting. Perhaps Spice World is intended to promote immature fantasies of the young and feminine, implying that all the superficial preoccupations of tweeners can indeed be parlayed into a reasonably healthy adult lifestyle. Provided, of course, that you are the locus of constant attention and praise, and make exorbitant amounts of money by simply “being yourself,” and by “being yourself” they of course mean “successful pop star fashionistas.” Good natured successful pop star fashionistas, naturally, which makes it alright.

That’s… Hmm. I’ve definitely heard healthier messages. Let’s just leave it at that.

Spice World Baby Spice

Okay, let’s stop looking for deeper meaning in Spice World, since I’m increasingly convinced that we won’t like what we find. Let’s look at Spice World as a shallow but high-spirited piece of entertainment. There are some funny bits in Spice World. There’s a cute running gag about how the Spice Girls are always rushing to get everywhere they go, except for Posh Spice, whose little Gucci dresses are so constricting that she always walks with perfect posture half a lap behind her adrenaline junkie co-stars. That’s kind of funny.

There’s also a cute bit where Richard E. Grant and Claire Rushbrook, concerned that the Spice Girls might break up, muse that “fame is a fickle thing.” At which point Elvis Costello asks them for their drink order, which they order without recognizing him. That’s pretty funny. That’s also pretty much it. The rest of the film is either loud or just hopelessly broad. For instance: a strange interlude of the girls peeing in the woods (all the toilets in the giganto-bus are broken, for no other reason than to force them to pee in the woods and make this scene happen). There they meet a visiting alien species comprised, of course, of enormous fans of the Spice Girls, who feel up Scary's breasts in a “hilarious” bit of cultural misunderstanding.

Spice World Alien Boob Grab

Ugh.

Storywise, it’s important to look at a recurring subplot that finds a producer, played by George Wendt, and his screenwriter, played Mark McKinney, pitching a Spice Girls movie to the singers’ manager. Their movie ideas are uniformly awful until they start pitching the exact plot of Spice World. That idea is pretty awful too, but at least Spice World had the sense necessary to juxtapose “this” awful film with other, way more awful films they could have made instead. It’s like Spice World is shrugging at its own audience, excusing its own vapidity by saying, “Yeah, sure, but imagine how bad this could have been.” Admittedly, it was a pretty good idea to introduce the film’s writer as a total hack. It explains away terrible plot developments like a café owner who helped the Spice Girls when they were nobodies, who appears only in a flashback the minute before that café becomes a minor plot point, and then never shows up again, despite the heroines wondering aloud whatever happened to him.

MSDSPWO EC008

Come to think of it, yeah… Whatever did happen to him? Why did you bring him up at all? What were you getting at? And why do five different women all have the same best friend – their only friend, mind you – whom they abandon when she’s over nine months pregnant and nursing a broken heart, courtesy of a boyfriend who dumped her in the fourth trimester? And why does their redemption as “best friends” come in the form of taking this ticking time bomb of maternity into a club late at night, liquoring her up and abandoning her – again – to dance with each other on the other side of that club? We’re supposed to like the Spice Girls. We want to like the Spice Girls. Why won’t you let us, Spice World?

Okay, so Spice World doesn’t pass The Test of Time. I was hoping the film would remind me – or at least finally convince me – of why the Spice Girls were such a global phenomenon in the first place. Maybe Spice World would introduce me to their unique personalities and sense of humor. Maybe it would have just been harmless camp. Maybe it would have ironic entertainment value. But no. Their music is still okay, I legitimately have no problem with it (although I’ve definitely heard better), but their lone opportunity to break into the world of cinema is just a confusing, awkward and unfunny mess of a film. Spice World doesn’t even work as a pop culture time capsule, because it’s so busy aping movies of the past that it never even feels like a product of the Nineties, aside from some of the clothes and a brief appearance by Hugh Laurie back in his “funny” days. Spice World, despite the title, is pretty bland. Not tasteless, mind you… just pretty bland.

Next week, The Test of Time will be looking at a film that many consider “the worst sequel ever made.” What movie is it, and how bad can it really be? You’ll find out on Wednesday. Until then, you know what I want to do…?

Strut.


William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.