From Justin to Kelly (2003) / Musical-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG for thematic elements, sensuality and brief language
Running time: 81 min. (90 minutes extended version)
Cast: Justin Guarini, Kelly Clarkson, Katherine Bailess, Anika Noni Rose, Greg Siff, Brian Dietzen, Jason Yribar, Theresa San-Nicholas
Director: Robert Iscove
Screenplay: Kim Fuller
Review published August 15, 2009
Nominated for nine "worst of the year" Razzie Awards (winner of "Worst Musical in Our First 25 Years") and currently a perennial entry in IMDB's Bottom 100 movies, its reputation isn't nearly as bad as you'd expect. Much of the revulsion to the film is little more than backlash for the "American Idol" pop star oversaturation, not wanting what has become a national obsession on the small screen to start spilling over onto the big. Still, it aims low for a film that seeks to make superstars out of its performers, and doesn't succeed even in its limited aspirations, such that perhaps From Justin to Kelly actually benefits from its perpetual critical derision, as only the very lowest of expectations can have viewers feeling pleasantly surprised by the miniscule returns in entertainment the film provides.
The plot: Spring break in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, brings 20-something revelers from all over the country to meet, carouse, and have summer flings. The two titular characters, Pennsylvania college student Justin (Guarini, The Unknown Trilogy) and Texas waitress Kelly (Clarkson, Issues 101), meet on the beach and form an instant attraction, feeling the pull to get together as early and as often as possible. However, after exchanging numbers, Kelly loses her cell phone, not knowing that her friend Alexa (Bailess, Bring It On Again) has it in her possession. Alexa mischievously communicates with Justin through text messages to meet him on dates which the unknowing Kelly stands him up for. The constant miscommunication is a constant source of rift between the two would-be lovebirds, who can't understand why something that feels so real has to be so complicated.
Innocuous pop tunes deserve an innocuous movie, and there's no form of movie musical more innocuous than the beach party flicks of the 1950s (particularly Frankie and Annette's). The format gets a reboot with popular American Idol stars-in-the-making Kelly Clarkson, American Idol's first champion, and Justin Guarini, the runner up, produced by the very production company of the show that made household named out of them, 19 Entertainment. The formula employed here is relatively simple: throw in enough pop song-and-dance numbers to please the fans of the stars and format, and inject just enough romantic angst during the story in between to set up the singing of these songs at regular intervals.
Along these lines, the film is only half successful, as, like most musicals, the highlights are the musical numbers, but the story in between just doesn't give enough support to lend any weight or momentum to the pop numbers when they begin. One problem is the relative inexperience of the film's stars, who exude terrific vocal talents, but not enough screen presence to come across as anything other than likeable. Their on-screen romance comes off as awkward, partly due to the fact that the story takes extreme shortcuts, forcing us into the position of assuming that these two vacationing sweethearts could form some sort of instant bond as soul mates, while also not too deeply interested that they won't decide to throw it all away when there's something not going right.
Given that they are inexperienced in the acting department, Kelly and Justin perform adequately, though the supporting cast of actors frequently upstages them. Their co-stars not only have better acting chops, but also better dancing moves, comic timing, and they look better in a swimsuit. Not that it is Kelly or Justin's fault, as they were not ready-made for a summer beach flick, with Kelly always wearing something to try to cover up her hip area (probably seen as an unflattering area by the film's producers) and Guarini is never shown down completely topless. This leaves their next-in-line in the cast listing, actors Katherine Bailess and Greg Siff (River's End), to carry the film in the eye-candy and comic momentum department, as well as being better dancers. If only they could sing even half as good as Kelly or Justin, we wouldn't even need the American Idol stars at all.
Unfortunately for the makes of From Justin to Kelly, musicals aren't successful based on the vocal talents of the stars alone, which is evidenced by the fact that some of the best performers within the genre were never known as the best singers. It takes all-around talent and charisma to be considered a success, and outside of singing ability, Kelly and Justin prove to be average at best. The film does often flirt with he racy elements of Spring Break in Florida, such as the whipped cream bikini contest and lots of searching for vacation flings, but the film stays true to its wholesome PG rating, and the stars are especially modest by being the characters with the more family-friendly notions of love and honor above hedonistic pursuits.
From Justin to Kelly is a bit like Grease (if mixed with the setting of Where the Boys Are) done without credible acting, memorable song-and-dance numbers, or a workable romantic story. It will provide entertainment solely to viewers who enjoy anything light, colorful and relatively inoffensive. If you enjoy the two "American Idol" personalities, especially if you find them attractive, perhaps there is an extra enjoyment in seeing them in not-too-revealing beach attire. For everyone else, American I-Dull might have proven an appropriate subtitle.
©2009 Vince Leo