The juggernaut known as American Idol is coming to an end after nearly 14 years on the air, and the conversation around its final season has focused on its musical legacy, gifting the world a constellation of bright stars like Jennifer Hudson (she won an Oscar!) and Katherine McPhee (she starred in a 3-D movie about sharks in a supermarket!). But as the show sings its swan song, we can’t forget another indelible mark the series left on pop culture: specifically, 2003’s would-be summer blockbuster and the stillborn brainchild of Idol mastermind Simon Fuller, From Justin to Kelly.
On paper, the producer’s plan appeared flawless: He would cobble together a big-screen behemoth around his recently crowned winner Kelly Clarkson and her affable runner-up Justin Guarini, forcing them to publicly act out their long-rumored romance (and forcing is the word for what Fuller was doing, as both of his stars were contractually obligated to appear in the film). For a screenplay, the show’s creator would turn to his brother, Kim, who had previously penned the objectively perfect masterpiece, Spice World (1997). He would take the movie from conception to release date in less than three months, figuring that God made the Earth in seven days (and just chilled for one of them), so 10 weeks should be plenty of time to manufacture a musical about horny twentysomethings. What could go wrong?
In a word: everything.
As anyone in the Western world knows, From Justin to Kelly almost immediately became synonymous with disaster. In fact, the film’s reputation as an all-time embarrassment quickly eclipsed its financial loss — grossing $4.9 million against a $12 million budget, Fuller’s harebrained cash-grab was hardly an exceptional failure in a world where major studios regularly take hits hits of more than $50 million on their biggest flops. Nevertheless, the numbers were irrelevant to a public who had good reason to elect this particular film as the Ishtar of its generation — like the Titanic or the Hindenburg, it was the kind of catastrophe that few people witnessed first-hand, but everyone remembers as if they survived it themselves.
Kelly Clarkson has publicly begged for the film not to become a cult classic, telling Time Magazine in a 2015 interview that “I just want it to go away. I just want it not to be here.” Bad news, Kelly: It will be remembered long after many of the show’s winning contestants have been forgotten (in fact, it’s safe to assume that it already has). And, however perverse it may seem, that’s how it should be. Mistake or not, the truth is that the movie captures the real spirit of the show better and more succinctly than anything else Fox’s nation-wide talent contest ever produced.
Stuck in the awkward pubescent phase between perky Nineties teen cinema and the snarky, self-aware millennial version that replaced it, From Justin to Kelly takes a Jenga tower of bad teenybopper-movie ideas and perfectly bottles the transparent faux-wholesomeness that often made American Idol contestants look like they were being ransomed to the viewing public. It takes the movie less than two minutes of screen time to establish that Kelly is a sulking Dallas barmaid who reluctantly agrees to drive her friends to Florida for spring break at a moment’s notice. Her friends are the Kaya (future Tony-winner Anika Noni Rose), whose only appreciable trait is the color of her skin, and Alexa (Katherine Bailess), a sociopathic daddy’s girl who acts like the lovechild of Satan and one of the Real Housewives.
Meanwhile, Justin and his two bros, who collectively refer to themselves as the “Pennsylvania Posse,” are already cruising the beach; they are the “mayors of spring break,” a badge that the cherubic Guarini wears about as comfortably as he might a baseball hat. (Remember when the people of San Francisco indulged in a little boy’s fantasy of being Batman? This feels a lot like that.) There’s a Hard Day’s Night vibe to the girls chasing Justin around — if, instead of the Beatles, that movie was all about a bunch of screaming girls chasing around the notorious boy band LFO.
Unsurprisingly, the other two members of the PP are far more interesting than our silver-throated Romeo. First, there’s Justin’s right-hand wingman Brandon (Greg Siff), a dude with a pukka shell necklace and lightly frosted tips who’s less a person than an American Eagle mannequin magically brought to life by a wizard’s spell. His big introduction: A rap called “Chick-Seeking Missile,” in which Brandon rhymes: “You’ll be heart breakin’ / Better yet heart bustin’ / Just follow me and Justin / And soon they’ll be lustin’ after you.” At the end of the day, all you really need to know about this character is that, when a police officer gives the kid a ticket for being a douche, you don’t even think to question it.
Finally, there’s Eddie (Brian Dietzen). Poor Eddie. It was tough to be a nerd back in 2003. The idea that Justin and Brandon would be friends with a super-dweeb like Eddie may be the most unrealistic thing here, and this is a movie where two men later engage in an impromptu hovercraft race for Kelly’s heart. A caricature who might as well be wearing a hat topped with a spinning plastic propeller, he’s only interested in finding a girl he met on the Internet (“I’ve been cyber-chatting with this girl for like a year”). Of course now that Tinder is pretty much the only form of human communication at spring break, it turns out that Eddie was just ahead of his time.
When these two groups meet on sands of Ft. Lauderdale, the entire beach explodes into a song called “The Bounce (The Luv).” For someone who didn’t even want to go on this trip, Kelly is thirsty. She immediately sizes up the guys: “Tall, short, dark, blonde / Who’s the right decision? / Boy I need a vision / If you wanna dance with me.” Justin’s lyrics provide an equally illuminating glimpse into his shy, indecisive mind: “Did that girl just look my way? / Look like she just wants to play / So go over, no I’ll stay / Cause I don’t know just what to say.” Hamilton this ain’t.
Of course, it’s love at first sight. But when a shocked Alexa learns that Justin is interested in Kelly (“You’re the mayor of spring break and she’s one bonnet shy of Amish!”), she decides to sabotage the budding romance for sport. This character, it’s worth noting, is a straight-up sociopath, but the idea that the young woman has no idea why she’s actively working against her best friend’s happiness feels like the only thing in From Justin to Kelly that people actually do in real life.
From there, the film essentially becomes Much Ado About Nothing by way of Grease, as a series of calculated misunderstandings which eventually leads to a scene where Kelly is reborn as a “party girl” (i.e. she puts up her hair and wears a belly shirt). At the end of the movie, the following three things happen in quick succession:
1. Eddie meets his cyber pal, and drops the game-changing opening line: “Excuse me, are you Lizzie from the Internet?”
2. The cast absolutely slaughters a Kidz Bop cover of “That’s the Way (I Like It).”
3. Justin and Kelly finally declare their love for each other, at which point Justin is like “So… I guess I’ll visit you? I don’t know, I got shit to do.” And then, who knows, maybe Justin dies on the way back to his home planet like Poochie the Wonder Dog.
And it’s on that note that From Justin to Kelly resolves as our most transparent look at the machine behind the TV music megillah. With a tagline like “the tale of two American Idols,” not even the marketing could be bothered to pretend that the movie was about anything more than the brand itself. And unclouded by the fog of viewer participation generated by the show’s voting process, Fuller’s cash cow revealed what it was all about: Using us to find diamonds in the rough, and then selling them back to the public at a steep markup. It let his audience know exactly how he saw them. If there’s anything that fundamentally separates this from the endless legions of feature-length corporate pap, it’s that this is the rare movie that hates its viewers.
Still, we’ll always have “The Bounce.”