It’s frightening to think that Dominique Deruddere’s feeble fable was one of the pictures nominated for the best foreign-language film Oscar this year. The Flemish offering is a wafer- thin comedy about a father who will resort to anything–even kidnapping and blackmail–to get his daughter a shot at a singing career, and its combination of overwrought humor and sappiness is painful to watch.
One shouldn’t blame the filmmakers too much, though. “Everybody’s Famous” is merely the latest example of how wrong things can go when Europeans try to emulate the junkiest of Hollywood models. Deruddere has obviously studied American formulas in constructing his picture, and the result is that it represents the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, it’s meretricious and heavy-handed rather than authentic or astute (that’s the Hollywood contribution), and on the other it’s grubby and unkempt, without the slickness of our California product. It’s a double chore to sit through.
The central character is Jean (Josse De Pauw), a factory worker who conceives of himself as a tunesmith and his overweight daughter Marva (Eva van der Gucht) as a potential pop-music sensation. Over the protests of the unhappy girl and his wife Chantal (Gert Portael), Jean insists on entering Marva in grisly amateur shows in which she’s repeatedly humiliated. Then, after losing his job, our hero is presented with an opportunity to kidnap local TV star Debbie (Thekla Reuten). Enlisting a rather simple-minded co-worker named Willy (Werner De Smedt) to guard the captive, Jean blackmails her manager Michael (Victor Low) to write a song based on a melody he’s invented and then turn it into a smash sung by Marva. The big finale has lots of complications, including a predictable turn involving Debbie and Willy, a police raid and an unlikely triumph.
This silly scenario might have worked as a dark satire along the lines of Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” but Deruddere treats it as a charming fairy-tale, eschewing any edge or irony. The result is disastrous in virtually every respect. De Pauw turns Jean into a frenzied simpleton, but never makes him remotely likable. To make matters worse, Van der Gucht plays Marva as a self-absorbed, surly young girl, and it’s pretty much impossible to root for her even when she turns to sweetness and light at the end. (Her voice isn’t terribly good, either, and the supposed hit song she’s forced to sing over and over again is torturously bad.) Of the remaining cast members, only Reuten and De Smedt make much of an impression; they’re attractive, winning personalities, though they aren’t given much to do. In depicting the Belgian programs on which the singers are featured, however, the picture does provide one salutary lesson for American viewers: if these wretched “Star Search” clones are actually characteristic of television across the Atlantic, we have little reason to complain about what’s on the tube over here.
Thee’s one further point. “Everybody’s Famous” is bad, but its slavish adherence to American formula almost assures that eventually an English-language remake will follow, and it’s a virtually certainty that it will be even worse. One can already envision Robin Williams or Tim Allen maniacally kidnapping Britney Spears and turning her over to Ben Stiller while he blackmails oily Greg Kinnear; some newly-discovered ingenue, a contemporary equivalent of what Ann-Margret was back in 1963, will be chosen in a phony nationwide search to play the daughter; and the music will be inferior to that featured in “Josie and the Pussycats,” but will be portrayed as blowing the audience away through rotation on MTV (surely the inevitable Kurt Loder will be hired to do fake announcements of the girl’s rise to stardom). Some hack will direct. The picture will bomb, and the studio honchos won’t be able to understand why.
But all these horrors lie in the future. For now we need suffer only from the Flemish original. Despite the fact that it’s a stage father who’s the central character in “Everybody’s Famous,” this pathetic shaggy-dog tale is a picture only a mother could love.