April 20, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Josie and the Pussycats is as spangly and shallow and artificial as its trio of pastel-hearted girl-group heroines, but give it this much: The movie’s got bounce. Spanked along by a soundtrack that has a surprising punky bite for something aimed at 13-year-olds (the super-catchy songs are like bubblegum Sleater-Kinney crossed with Joan Jett), the picture can make you long for the intellectual refinement of, say, the Charlie’s Angels movie, but it offers a kind of junior-high dose of the same rebel-fashion-plate swagger. Like Elvis films, The Monkees, or the entire career of the Spice Girls, Josie and the Pussycats is a great big soundtrack-and-image marketing juggernaut packaged as a ”knowing” youthquake satire, one that dares to ask the question: Can a rock musical make devious fun of prefab, disposable, faux-cool teen pop, even if it exists for no other reason than to package fresh new icons of prefab, disposable, faux-cool teen pop? You bet your electric-blue hip huggers it can.

At the beginning, there’s a witty parody of sensitive-boy supergroups, with actors like Breckin Meyer and Seth Green, as members of the aptly named Dujour (they’ll be gone tomorrow), doing soft-edged Caucasian hip-hop moves. The group is then whisked away by their evil-puppy manager, Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming), who abandons them in mid-flight, parachuting off the plane as he prepares to discover — that is, create — the Next Big Thing.

That would be the Pussycats, a band of new-wave teenyboppers from Riverdale. Small-boned leader Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook), blissed-out bimbo drummer Melody (Tara Reid), and no-nonsense rhythm guitarist Val (Rosario Dawson) are nothing if not game, yet the three have a faintly innocuous, second-banana modesty. This is a pop group with a lead singer but no stars, all of which makes them perfect for Wyatt and his overseer, Fiona (Parker Posey), the CEO of MegaRecords, a fascist corporation that plants subliminal messages in pop CDs, turning teenagers into avid consumer zombies who speak in breathless trend koans like ”Pepsi One is the new Diet Coke!”

In their junior-Playboy kitty ears, the Pussycats have little more grip as characters than they did as ’70s feline rockers spun off from the Archie comics. That’s the film’s principal drawback — sorry, but Rachael Leigh Cook is not the new Cameron Diaz. Cook has a withdrawn mannequin glumness that makes it look as if she’s had cosmetic surgery directly on her gene pool. She exudes an endearing earnestness in the concert scenes, though, and she helps to balance out the studious chicklet daffiness of Tara Reid’s Melody, a one-joke character who expands to a joke and a quarter when she has to fend off an attack by Reid’s real-life fiance, MTV’s Buddha of shill, Carson Daly. Josie and the Pussycats is hardly a good movie, but it’s as flashy in its postmodern hard sell as a leopard-skin spandex tank top. Could Josie be the new Britney? Could the film be the new Bring It On? At the very least, it’s the new and improved Coyote Ugly. Call it Coyote Pretty.

98 minutes
Harry Elfont,
Deborah Kaplan
Rachael Leigh Cook,
Paulo Costanzo,
Missi Pyle
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