Style and substance

Culture | Spicy girls, prose, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Steve Largent," Feb. 13, 1998

When the spice hath lost its savor

Oh, no! The Spice Girls made a movie! Columbia Pictures threw one up on American screens called Spice World. The name sounds like somebody's bad idea for a theme park. Actually it's somebody's bad rehash of the old Beatles movie, A Hard Day's Night.

The Spice Girls sing pop songs that aren't good enough to be memorable nor bad enough to truly annoy. Their singles are top-40 tofu. When thrown into the mix of FM radio, Posh, Baby, Sporty, Scary, and Ginger Spice sound okay. On their own, they're simply forgettable.

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Spice World takes the audience on the group's magical mystery tour bus just before a big show at Royal Albert Hall. Most of the movie is spent showing the Spice Girls doing cute things in big shoes. They fall off a boat, deliver a baby, and meet aliens. Not much else happens.

Lots of syntho-pop plays. Pop singer Meat Loaf drives the bus. A road agent (Richard E. Grant) says things like, "We've got to get ready for the show!" a lot. George Wendt from Cheers wants to make a movie about the quintet. An evil paparazzi wants to break them up to make headlines. And Roger Moore, Elton John, Elvis Costello, and Bob Geldof make cameo appearances.

Ho hum. This isn't even good kitsch.The Girls' acting would embarrass Madonna, and the filmmakers left them with a script that makes us miss The Monkees.

Honest rhetoric

Peggy Noonan is back. The most famous speechwriter of the Reagan/Bush era now gives lessons in rhetoric. Her new book, Simply Speaking (ReganBooks, ISBN 0-060-39212-6) is full of her thoughts on how to talk to people in public. Amid the usual how-tos lurks someone who loves words, especially clear words, and stands in awe of history's great figures.

Ms. Noonan's greatest gift is her ability to craft a successful speech based on substance. She likes words that convey a message instead of polishing an image. With copious asides and anecdotes, her advice fits her own style. "A good case well argued and well said is inherently moving," she writes. "It shows respect for the listeners."

Bill Clinton's speeches, of course, don't pass this test. Noonan says they lack depth. "He has the intensity of a deep and thoughtful person without the depth of a deep and thoughtful person," she complains. Another peeve is with writers who try to force a soundbite down their audience's throats. Be yourself and just write a good speech, she advises, and the magic five seconds will take care of itself.

Ms. Noonan's comments are often insightful, although she dislikes new-age liberals (like Clinton) while oohing and aahing old-age liberals (like FDR and JFK). Still, Ms. Noonan knows her stuff, and her ear for reaching middle America deserves study. In a world cluttered with endless buzzwords and puffery, her tips on honest, clear speech certainly point in the right direction.

New Grisham movie forgets the moral of the story

The Gingerbread Man is the latest John Grisham novel to hit the silver screen. It's another tale of moral tension, plot twists, and Southern lawyers. This time there's a plot with shades of Dashiell Hammet and Agatha Christie.

Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Henry V) is a divorced barrister with a cool red Mercedes, a not-so-cute libido, and Robert Downey Jr. as his sidekick. He picks up a Woman In Trouble (Embeth Davidtz from Schindler's List) after an office party. She claims her crazy hobo Daddy (The Apostle's Robert Duvall) is stalking her. She begs some high-powered help in getting him committed.

Pandemonium results. At one point when our lead gets in trouble, he calls on a defense team to keep him out of the slammer. One of his counselors is Clinton compadre Vernon Jordan in a cameo role (who would probably prefer now not to be in the public eye as this kind of fix-it man).

Robert Altman directed this feature and steered it away from the mainstream Grisham flicks. He conveys an eerie spookiness that supplants the glossiness of, say, The Firm.

The problem with this movie is that there's an excellent morality tale in Mr. Grisham's story, but Mr. Altman is too busy building a suspense thriller to notice. If the Branagh character hadn't spent the night with the Woman In Trouble, nothing would have happened. His indiscretions lead to his own destruction and the deaths of innocent people. Instead of showing the absurdity of avarice, as Mr. Altman did in The Player, The Gingerbread Man is just another postmodern nailbiter. This is a good movie that could have been great.


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