Kelly Clarkson is like you and me in at least one respect: She, too, is sick of Kelly Clarkson. "My friends are like 'If I see you on one more interview, dude, I'm going to kill you,'" says the first American Idol, sitting in the conference room of the Dallas publicity agency representing her film From Justin to Kelly, in which she plays a Texas girl named Kelly. To her left, taped on a glass wall, are a dozen posters advertising the film, in which Clarkson stars with fellow contestant Justin Guarini, who plays her love interest, a Philly boy named Justin. Clarkson swivels around in her chair and glares at the images of her face that repeat -- and repeat and repeat -- down several feet of wall space. "I'm everywhere," she says, in a tone of voice that suggests she's at once very impressed and very aghast at the spectacle. "It's amazing."
She should have disappeared by now, having been replaced by yet another instacelebrity on the show that made her instafamous. Fame's clock, a stopwatch measured in milliseconds, should be down to its final ticks. But still Kelly Clarkson's here -- and there and everywhere else. She's still on television, serenading Jay Leno or the latest crop of what-about-me? wannabes, for whom success cannot arrive quick enough. She resides high atop the pop charts, where her million-selling album Thankful sits at the No. 4 spot. And now she frolics wholesomely on the movie screen, where she plays Annette to Justin's Frankie in a surprisingly mean-spirited spring-break movie that looks as if it were filmed in 17 days -- and damned near was, lest anyone forget her name in the painful glow of the summer's first sunburn. (It actually took 30 days, at a cost of around $12 million -- the price of a cab ride back to reality.)
That Clarkson has not receded into a dimming spotlight is as much her doing as it is that of the studios and labels that stand to make a fortune off her and the other Idols -- or so she would have you believe. She is, like Amanda Bynes and Mandy Moore and Hilary Duff and the other child-adult stars gracing the cover of the recent issue of Vanity Fair, a would-be franchise, aware of her bankability, who puts up the front of being in control of her own career. This, despite the fact that the American Idol contract she and the other contestants signed makes it very clear that they are all the property of 19 Group, the production company owned by the show's creator, Simon Fuller -- whose sister Kim wrote From Justin to Kelly.
If Clarkson's really a puppet at Fuller's command, you can't see the strings. But a stumbling block lies ahead, and its name is From Justin to Kelly -- proof, the skeptic will say, that Clarkson and Guarini are beholden after all to Fuller and 19 Group and Fox, who have conspired to make one lousy film that's so rushed in its production, it barely even looks like freebie television, much less a buy-yer-tix feature film. It's barely Skokie, much less Chicago.
Ostensibly, From Justin to Kelly aspires to be a Beach Blanket Bingo redux with a gangbang Grease finale (music provided by K.C. and the Sunshine Band), but it plays like a junior-high Neil LaBute filmed by an elementary-school AV squad. Kelly and Justin meet on a Miami beach, fall in love at first dance number, and are constantly thwarted at every turn by Kelly's alleged best friend Alexa (first-timer Katherine Bailess), who intercepts Justin's cell-phone text messages and leads Kelly to believe that her True Love is a two-timing bastard. It's an odd, distasteful plot contrivance for a film aimed at preteens -- a cute-for-kids love story, in which a woman is repeatedly plunging a knife into her friend's back.
Worse, From Justin to Kelly is a musical so pedestrian, it trips over its feet every time someone breaks into song or dance. It's so poorly lit, you can barely see the actors in some scenes, and rare is the occasion when characters actually look at each other during musical numbers, much less sing to or with each other -- which is especially jarring during Kelly and Justin's Big Love Scene, where you're never sure whether one is supposed to hear what the other's saying or it's all taking place, ya know, in their minds.
From Justin to Kelly already feels antiquated, not '60s retro but '80s flat, bereft of the oddball anarchy of the knowingly arch Frankie-and-Annette films directed by William Asher. Those movies, among them Beach Party and Bikini Beach, were campy, sunshiny blasts punctuated by inexplicable, subversive cameos: Peter Lorre, looking dazed and confused; Buster Keaton, getting his go-go swerve on; Buddy Hackett and Don Rickles, trying to crack each other up. From Justin to Kelly has no such "grown-up" moments, nothing for parents to savor, save for an air-conditioned retreat from the sun for some 80 minutes.
Clarkson, of course, luvluvluvs the movie, which she believes has precisely the same sort of cross-generational appeal as American Idol. She will say, often, that From Justin to Kelly is a Chicago or Moulin Rouge for kids too young to understand, or even see, those movies. "They kind of opened up doors again for the movie musical," she says, "so we thought it'd be cool to do one for the younger audience. It's kind of a beach kind of Grease, but it's not -- it's a PG. We don't say, you know, 'Chicks'll cream.'"
No, they don't. Sadly.