During a recent preview of a different New Line film, a trailer for “Sugar & Spice” was shown, and a fellow critic seated a few rows behind me muttered as he watched it, “Just shoot me now.” Then, the distributor abruptly canceled a press screening of the picture scheduled for a few days before its release. And, of course, the new flick follows closely upon two awful cheerleading-themed items from 2000: “Bring It On” and “But I’m A Cheerleader.” The signs, shall we say, were not good, and my colleague’s premonition of agony was not without foundation.

If this review were a Hollywood movie, we’d probably have a dramatic shift here: “Contrary to all expectations, however….” Sadly, reality does not in this instance imitate what sometimes passes for art. “Sugar & Spice” is just as bad as you’d anticipate, and then some; despite the title, there’s nothing nice in it at all.

The operative word here is “dumb.” I don’t mean that the writer, or director, or other members of the crew, or the various performers are necessarily stupid people; but I do mean that the script is dumb, that it features an array of incredibly dimwitted characters, and that the plot is presented in a singularly inept fashion. Alternately tasteless and inane (and very often both at once), it tells the story of a group of boneheaded high school cheerleaders (played by Marley Shelton, Melissa George, Mena Suvari, Rachel Blanchard, Alexandra Holden and Sara Marsh) who decide to rob a bank, using a plan roughly modeled on Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 Keanu Reeves starrer, “Point Break.” They have a good reason, of course: their effervescent captain, Diane (Shelton) has gotten pregnant by her boyfriend, lunkheaded quarterback Jack Bartlett (James Marsden), whom she immediately marries, only to be disowned by her parents, and since she’s about to deliver twins, cash is of the utmost importance. The entire sorry tale of the girls’ imbecilic turn turn to crime is narrated for us, in stultifyingly raunchy terms, by Diane’s arch-rival Lisa (Marla Sokoloff) who, we’re meant to believe until a clumsy final twist, intends to doom the gals to a stretch behind bars.

It might have been possible for something to have been made of such an idea through clever writing and astute direction, but none is on display here. All the characters are depicted as morons–there’s not a hint of the underlying reality that John Hughes managed to capture in his high school flicks–and the various episodes are shockingly flat and crudely developed. Under the circumstances there isn’t much the cast can do, however game. Among the girls one feels special sympathy for Sokoloff and Suvari; the latter, after all, was in “American Beauty” (and was very likable in Amy Heckerling’s sadly underrated “Loser”), but here she’s completely wasted, while the former, who’s so good on “The Practice,” is demeaned by having to play a foul-mouthed, perpetually belligerent shrew. But even they’re treated better than Marsden, who must smile idiotically and play the buffoon endlessly. To add insult to injury, the picture is positively painful to look at; it’s photographed well enough, but the choice to shoot everything in bright, candy-colored hues makes it so garish as to be visually oppressive. And even if you close your eyes, there’s an ear-splittingly loud rock score to contend with. There’s also a cameo by Kurt Loder, playing himself as MTV reporter, which seems to have become an obligatory part of all flicks of this genre. Can’t he be banished from the big screen, at least for a year or so? (It appears to have worked with the equally insufferable Larry King.)

Is there anything pleasant about “Sugar & Spice”? Well, there’s one joke–with Madonna as its punchline–that might raise a smile. Otherwise one can only nod in agreement when Diane, obviously the most perceptive of her group despite her Barbie-doll mentality, remarks, a mere fifteen minutes in, “I know that we’re knee-deep in it, and it seems stinky right now”–a comment that applies equally well to the rest of the flick. For the press notes to compare it, as they do, to such smart predecessors as “Heathers” and “Clueless” is bad joke indeed. It lasts only eighty minutes or so, but even that provides no consolation.