What does "The American Mall" mean for MTV? After years of the slow slide into irrelevance thanks to a schedule packed with reality shows as well as an increasing disconnect from its trend-setting past, could the cable channel be revived with a made-for-TV movie musical? Or is their production of what is essentially a "High School Musical" rip-off a sign of complete desperation, the network attempting to grasp onto the pop culture significance of bigger, better stops on the cable dial?
Whatever MTV's reasons, "The American Mall" - which the channel will premiere Monday, August 11; it then hits DVD the next day - is a fairly safe bet. The film comes from several producers of the "High School Musical" series and plays by mainly the same formula: teen romance, a familiar setting for suburban students, radio-friendly pop songs, etc. Many "High School Musical" fans, in junior high when that phenomenon launched, are now moving up to high school, where they'll see themselves as too old for Disney; enter MTV, with a musical that's just as fluffy but a little less sanitized. But only a little - "The American Mall" leans much more closely to Zac Efron than to Tila Tequila.
It's that magical summer between high school graduation and the first steps into college. Ally (Nina Dobrev) dreams of a future as a songwriter, but her mother (Yassmin Alers) - once full of her own ambitions, now struggling as the owner of the neighborhood mall's music shop - instead wishes she'd go study business. Ally spends her nights sneaking into the mall to play on the shopping center's grand piano. She's admired from afar by the mall's overnight custodial crew, four young heartthrobs with their own rock band; the lead singer/lead janitor, Joey (Rob Mayes), has fallen hard for Ally, and sometimes sings along with her songs from afar, but will he ever work up the nerve to introduce himself?
Meanwhile, Ally's music shop is in jeopardy when Madison (Autumn Reeser), the spoiled, snobbish daughter of the mall's owner, schemes to boot the store out so she can have more room for her own fashion boutique. Will Ally and her mother hold on, or will Madison win out? And will Madison be successful in wooing Joey away from Ally? And whatever the outcome is, will all be resolved by the time the mall's talent show rolls around?
Wait a sec, I can hear you asking. What was that last bit again? Yes, in a plot move that can at best be deemed questionable, the screenplay (by former "Saturday Night Live" and "Square Pegs" scribe Margaret Oberman, from a story by Tomas Romero and P.J. Hogan) ends with the mall's annual talent show. The talent show-as-finale is a classic piece of storytelling laziness, and it's rarely been as strained and out of place as it is here. High schools? Summer camps? Sure, let them have talent shows. But a shopping mall?
It's easy to get quite cynical about "The American Mall." The writing is sitcom level, the characters are one-dimensional, and the whole thing's soaking in a thick layer of cheese. And that's not even mentioning the more questionable aspects of the mall setting - not only does it seem custom built for an unsettling amount of product placement, several songs have a whole "shopping makes life better!" vibe that's downright icky.
Indeed, the film walks a weird line between the fantasies of suburban youth and capitalist propaganda piece. On the one hand, it tunes into the idea of mall as the center of the teenage universe, a safe hangout to meet friends and loiter. On the other hand, the movie mall is all too clean - where are the ugly people, the fat people, the trashy people? - and there seems to be zero sarcasm in dance numbers set in front of a Sears and lyrics that glorify the power of spend! spend! spend!
But. Somewhere about an hour in, "The American Mall" won me over. I think it was around the time Ally, after believing herself betrayed by her new beau, storms off and, joined by an army of equally angry backup dancers, growled out the rock-ish "Survivor." Finally, after scene upon scene of lightweight, harmless pop tunes, the movie reveals some attitude. "Survivor" is pissed-off pop, and Dobrev plows through it with a welcome verve.
Now, finally, I was enjoying the musical on its own terms. Sure, it had its moments before - how fun it is for MTV to show something as formerly unhip as unabashed Broadway mayhem; there's something wonderful about seeing hundreds of shoppers spring to life and dance in unison - but most of the film was cluttered with too-familiar scenarios and too-flat songs. (Many of the tunes, most notably the faux-party anthem "Get Your Rock On," sound like rejects from "High School Musical" or "Camp Rock." Passable as kid-friendly pop, but too far removed from the very edge MTV should be embracing.) With "Survivor," the movie finally discovered what it was supposed to do.
Later scenes still struggle with mediocre plotting, but at least there's an energy now that overcomes it. The trick, perhaps, is that unlike most musicals, which front-load themselves with songs, "The American Mall" pumps most of its best numbers into its abnormally music-heavy second half. And not just because of the talent show (which actually turns out a whole lot more enjoyable than you'd ever guess from "shopping mall talent show" - what's not to love about breakdancers dressed as hot dogs?). Ignoring the terrible final number (a superfluous cast encore that thinks it's a lot more butt-kickin' than it is), all the songs in the last chunk of the film are pretty darn good, including a touching breakup tune and, later, a sweet duet. And even while the plot goes generally on autopilot, there are a few nice touches (namely the not-as-clichéd-as-expected resolution of the Madison subplot) that show a movie interested in being smarter than it looks.
It's a second half that's sharp enough to lead me to reevaluate the first half, which comes across better on a repeat viewing. It's still woefully flawed in all the wrong spots, and many of the songs carry the burden of prefab, mechanical safeness. Yet director Shawn Yu (a Sundance Festival short film veteran making his feature debut) lends a certain vibrancy to the proceedings, especially the key musical numbers, producing a perkiness that works.
Better still, the young cast is full of charmers with great big voices. Dobrev and Mayes make a fine screen couple, Reeser's preppy villain performance is surprisingly clever, and Joey's janitor buddies supply a nice dose of comic relief. These performances win us over when the screenplay cannot.
I'm not sure how "The American Mall" will fit as part of today's MTV; the movie is too clean-cut for the channel that gave us "Jackass" and "Date My Mom," but then again, maybe that's their point. Maybe they're eager to win over a generation raised on Disney.
But that's for MTV to figure out themselves. Viewed on its own, away from the mysteries of a cable channel famous (and infamous) for its constant evolution, "The American Mall" is a surprising charmer, especially in its strong second half. The "High School Musical" crowd will certainly enjoy themselves here, and their parents likely won't run screaming out of the room.
Paramount has labeled the DVD of "The American Mall" as an "Extended Edition," although as the movie has yet to air on MTV, there's no telling what, if any, scenes have been extended. The running time is 100 minutes, which is a few minutes longer than your typical two-hour TV movie minus commercials.
Video & Audio
Despite a bit of softness associated with the its TV movie-level budget, "The American Mall" looks quite solid in this anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer. Fitting with the movie's upbeat tone, colors are bold and attractive. Black levels are rich when appropriate.
The soundtrack is offered in Dolby 5.1 as well as 2.0. Both mixes are very good, with the surround mix having a nice fullness to it. Most of the audio action remains up front in this mix, meaning there's not too much difference between the two tracks (other than a richer sound). The songs come through spectacularly.
Two commentary tracks are included. The first is a cast track, with Debrev, Mayes, Reeser, Rodney To, Bianca Collins, Blythe Auffarth, Brooke Lyons, and Bresha Webb; the second finds Ku with "The Janitors": Wade Allain-Marcus, Neil Haskell, and David Baum. Both commentaries are less informational and more sitting-in-a-room-with-a-crowd-of-friends. Everyone talks over each other, everyone gets excited at all the songs, everyone's having fun. Some nice making-of facts seep through, but it's mainly chaos, in a good way.
Three music videos - for "Get Your Rock On" (2:49*), "Survivor" (3:49*), and "Clear" (4:06*) - are simply scenes from the movie edited to fit the songs. A fourth video - "You Got That Light" (4:38**), by Wade Allain-Marcus and David Baum - is a standalone clip meant to promote the co-stars' music careers.
"Learn to Dance with Bonnie" (20:00**) features choreographer Bonnie Story and several cast members teaching you how to dance to a few of the movie's key tunes. A frequently used split-screen approach offers a better look at the moves, which may be helpful to rookie dancers.
Six deleted scenes (10:00*) flesh out some of the details and allow for a few nice character moments, including a nice little something between Ally's mom and Madison's dad. A rough cut of an alternate ending isn't much (and oddly takes what I thought was a gay character and turns him straight - huh?), but it's still better than the crummy "Don't Hold Back" number.
Product placements aren't exclusive to the movie itself; here, the obligatory gag reel is titled "Eraser Moments, brought to you by Clean & Clear" (5:47*). These are your standard cute blooper moments, sponsored by the Clean & Clear Blackhead Eraser! Sigh. (My copy also included a coupon insert advertising the product, as well as a second insert telling you where to by "American Mall" t-shirts and tote bags.)
Two "Extended Performances" - for "Every 10 Seconds" (4:40*) and "At the Mall" (3:11*) - are just what they sound like, longer takes of two of the movie's early dance numbers. Fans may appreciate these full versions, but the filmmakers were correct in trimming them for the final film.
A scroll of DVD production credits plays to a 40 second audio clip of "Every 10 Seconds."
A set of previews for other MTV releases plays as the disc loads.
Extras marked * are presented in 1.78:1 flat letterbox. Extras marked ** are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
While "The American Mall" certainly suffers from its refusal to takes even the slightest risk, its target audience - namely, the same tweens and teens that made "High School Musical" a hit - is bound to enjoy themselves. The movie truly sparkles when it hits the right notes, and when it stumbles, it doesn't stumble too badly. The solid presentation and a hefty assortment of bonus material will appeal to fans. Recommended.