The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy takes 10 hours of screen time to tell a story that occupies the space of four years*. “Fame,” on the other hand, tries to cover four years in only 107 minutes. My point is not that I wish “Fame” had been 10 hours long, but that it’s almost unreasonably ambitious to cover such a long period of time, and such a large cast of characters, in a film of average length.
For comparison’s sake, the 1980 “Fame,” of which this is a very, very loose remake, was 134 minutes. But apart from the setting — the New York Academy of Performing Arts, a high school for singers, actors, dancers, and musicians — the films have little in common. The original was rated R and had the characters facing sexual exploitation and abortion. One of them was even an openly gay homosexual! The 2009 version, led by first-time feature director Kevin Tancharoen, is a cheery PG and has none of that.
Nor has it much originality or energy, unfortunately. Starting with auditions and ending with graduation day, the film tries to do so much in so little time that no characters or storylines get the attention they would need to succeed. Some scenes demonstrate admirable efficiency in establishing people and relationships with only a few lines of dialogue, but most are simply rushed and haphazard. (The screenplay is by Allison Burnett, a man, the writer of “Feast of Love” and “Autumn in New York.”) It’s like watching a teen soap opera on fast-forward.
Yes, though these talented kids are eager to pursue careers in the arts, the film’s real focus, insofar as it “focuses” on anything, is on their friendships and romances, and those are most assuredly nothing special. Jenny (Kay Panabaker) is an uptight stress case with professional acting ambitions; her love interest, Marco (Asher Book), is a singer. Malik (Collins Pennie) is an angry actor who won’t show his real feelings and wants to produce music with Victor (Walter Perez), who plays the piano but won’t follow the rules; the two of them find Denise (Naturi Naughton), a classical pianist whose secret talent lies in singing, which her strict father doesn’t support. Victor is apparently dating the aloof, wealthy dancer Alice (Kherington Payne), too, though the film literally spends no more than 90 seconds addressing their relationship.
Other students lurk in the periphery, even less well established. Neil (Paul Iacono) wants to make films. Joy (Anna maria Perez de Tagle), an actress, might not be able to keep her grades up. Kevin (Paul McGill), who came from Iowa to dance ballet, isn’t good enough to make a living at it.
But wait! I’m not done! There are 200 more students I need to mention!
Anyway. You get the idea. Charles S. Dutton, Bebe Neuwirth, Megan Mullally, and Kelsey Grammer are suitably authoritative as the school’s acting, dancing, singing, and piano instructors, respectively, and at least Mullally gets to sing a song. (Casting both Grammer and Neuwirth — Frasier and Lilith! — yet not giving them any screen time together is just cruel, though.) Debbie Allen, who played a teacher in the 1980 film and the ensuing TV series, has a couple scenes as the school’s principal. The young performers who play the students, most of them unknowns, seem capable and pleasant, but they’re hardly charismatic enough to stand out in such a large crowd.
The film does retain one of the earlier film’s messages: The real world is harsh and dishonest and liable to mess you up. The only safe place, it would seem, is the school itself, where spontaneous, multi-discipline musical numbers are apt to break out in the lunchroom. Yet even that sequence, which ought to be exuberant, is oddly lifeless, and so are most of the other performance pieces. If “Fame” were auditioning at the school it takes place in, it wouldn’t make it past callbacks.
*The books apparently occupy a somewhat different span of time; see this timeline. In the movies, though, Frodo says in the third film that it’s been four years since he was stabbed by a Ringwraith, which occurred in the first film. Thanks to the Twitterers who assisted me in researching this important topic.
C- (1 hr., 47 min.; )