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Anyone who has ever worn a Peter Pan collar, written an apology note and then copied it over 100 times, or cringed in fear at the ire of Sister Mary knows that the Catholic school experience is excellent fodder for comedy. Perhaps this explains the inherent humor in the character Mary Katherine Gallagher, the stereotypically awkward and repressed Catholic schoolgirl. Yet even with the infinite funny possibilities its setting provides, Superstar fails to deliver many laughs.
Of course I should have expected this. As any critic will comment, the formula that works so well in a nine-minute Saturday Night Live sketch rarely survives the full-length movie version, eg: A Night at the Roxbury. But I was a critic with a mission. I wanted to relive my days among the nuns.
Superstar begins with a young, nerdy Mary Katherine Gallagher (Molly Shannon) saving the life of a young boy at the local public swimming pool. It is a bizarre, unfunny scene that sets the tone for this lukewarm comedy. The next scene shows the now familiar Mary Katherine in school, first being mocked by the class beauty, Evian (Elaine Hendrix), and then pining away for the most popular guy in school, Sky (Will Ferrel). Undaunted, Mary Katherine longs to be a Hollywood superstar so she can get her first movie-style kiss, preferably from Sky. Opportunity presents itself in the form of a talent contest held at her school. Meanwhile the slightly deranged fellow classmate Slater (Glynis Johns) develops a crush on Mary Katherine.
Plot is definitely not the screenwriter's first priority. But sadly, neither is comedy. Some of the scenes are completely nonsensical, like the long musical montage consisting of students doing "the Robot" in the school cafeteria. There really is no explanation for the number of times this bad dance appears throughout the movie, save an unhealthy fixation on the writers' part. Equally unfunny is Will Ferrell in the role of a hippie Jesus that periodically enters Mary Katherine's dreams. The "fashion-time" break is equally painful. One gets the impression that the writers, lacking enough material to pack 90 minutes of film, randomly inserted these multiple sequences to add length. And the comic potential wasted in the roles of the father/ headmaster and the schoolteacher nuns is unforgivable.
Although Superstar's humor is meant to be silly and irreverent, the film's reliance on cheap puns and clichs is often excessive. Entire scenes are lifted from Carrie and Dirty Dancing. Mary Katherine's town, Besame Heights, literally means Kiss Me Heights when translated from Spanish. Coincidence? I'm afraid not.
Despite Superstar's many faults, hardcore SNL fans should not despair. There are still plenty of funny bits to counter the film's doldrums. The sequence in which Mary Katherine's grandmother reveals the truth about her parents' death is the inspired slapstick that leads to laughing out loud. Equally funny is the short episode in which Evian visits Sky's house to apologize, showcasing Will Ferrel's bufoonish charm. Parochial school jokes are few, but sometimes memorable. Note the sponsors on the banners announcing the student talent competition. And there are all of Mary Katherine's usual quirks--sticking her hands under her armpits, her movie-of-the-week monologues, and her agitated, "Hi, I'm Mary Katherine Gallagher." She is a distinctive character--so special that in the words of the headmaster, "we feel you should be in the special ed. class."
The film's most irresistible appeal, however, stems from actors Molly Shannon and Will Ferrell. In Superstar, Molly Shannon presents a tamer, less intense Mary Katherine Gallagher than her counterpart on SNL. This lack of stamina is undoubtedly due to the longer length of the film. Will Ferrell as Sky is the quintessential master of morons. But overall, both actors' talents are underused in a film that fails to showcase their comedic brilliance.
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