; Rated PG
At the risk of losing whatever little credibility I may have as a reviewer, let me admit this up front and get it out of the way: I most certainly do not mind the guys of *NSYNC, and I'd go so far as to say that I like them (and no, this has nothing to do with the fact that a few people associated with them, not to mention one of the guys themselves, regularly read my work). Having been the most successful of the so-called "boy bands" that have played a major part of the huge teen pop boom of recent years, the five members would be easy targets in any attempt to expand beyond the musical realm--after all, they already are easy targets in the musical realm. But even speaking as someone who is *NSYNC-friendly, if you will (and hence more likely to give the guys a fairer shake), there's simply no getting around the fact that On the Line, the feature acting debut of two-fifths of the singing group, is not a good film. In fact, it's a rather bad example of that already barrel-bottom-scraping genre, the teenybopper romantic comedy.
Lance Bass (who also executive produced) and Joey Fatone, the two *NSYNC-ers who headline this formulaic filmic fluffball, at the very least should be commended for playing it relatively safe for their maiden screen voyage; one quality that has always set their group apart from their Tiger Beat-staple contemporaries (*cough*Backstreet Boys*cough*) is their ability to not take themselves too seriously and maintain a healthy sense of humor about themselves and their teen idoldom status. This comes through in both of their performances; as if to just get it over and done with, Bass appears (attention teenage girls!) shirtless within the first five minutes of the film, and Fatone shows that he is certainly unafraid to make an ass of himself onscreen.
And does Fatone ever make an ass of himself--and not entirely in a good way--as Rod, the wannabe rocker best friend of Bass' Kevin, a young ad exec who spends the film's 80 minutes pining over and searching for Abbey (Emmanuelle Chriqui), one of those impossibly perfect matches that only people in movies spontaneously meet on commuter trains. Kevin meets Abbey during one fateful trip on Chicago's famed "L," and with one from-memory, in-unison reciting of the names of all the U.S. Presidents, it's clear that this is a match made in... well, movies like this. Yet the terminally timid Kevin chokes and lets Abbey go her on her merry way without getting her number, and so he launches a major campaign to find her by putting up posters all around town--and in so doing, becoming a local celebrity of some sort.
No, On the Line is not terribly realistic, but it's not as if romantic comedies are really expected to be. What is expected, though, is some fair measure of laughs, and director Eric Bross doesn't offer up many here. Dave Foley has some good moments as Kevin's uppity boss, and the ever-reliable Jerry Stiller shows up (much too briefly) as the ad agency's mail clerk, but the comic burden largely rests on the characters of Kevin's obnoxious best friends/roomies, and are these guys ever annoying. There's the white boy hip-hopper (GQ), the sharp-dressed slacker (James Bulliard), and, of course, Fatone's Rod. While his wildly overenthusiastic covers of '80s metal tunes are good for a chuckle or two, for the most part Fatone appears to be channelling David Arquette--not the genuinely funny Arquette of the Scream movies, but the grating one of the AT&T commercials and recent Warner Bros. comedies.
One of Arquette's better films (and one of the better examples of teen-targeted flicks), Never Been Kissed, is not only echoed but flat out ripped off in On the Line's eerily similar conclusion. That's just one example of how uninspired Eric Aronson and Paul Stanton's script is. On the Line is based on their own short film On the L, and the manner in which a number of plot threads feel underwritten and truncated likely owes to those origins. Much is made about how the newspaper columnist (Dan Montgomery) assigned to cover Kevin's story holds a long-standing grudge against his subject, but there's no real payoff. Similarly, Abbey's side of the film, where she struggles through a rapidly fizzling relationship, is a creative dead end before it inevitably reconverges with Kevin's story; a shame, since Chriqui is an appealing and natural actress whose work here hints at a capability of doing far more than what little she's given.
Bass proves to be similarly likable--if not exactly possessing of much range--as the lead, but his and Fatone's work in On the Line ultimately proves why they are the two-fifths of *NSYNC that generally skulks in the background. Bass is pleasant, but he hardly has a forceful enough presence to carry the weight of an entire film. The best moments of On the Line are the closing five minutes, and that's not the snotty comment that it sounds like. Not only does it feature Al Green performing a rousing and slightly more upbeat rendition of his classic "Let's Stay Together" (marred only by GQ's wholly ill-advised and embarrassingly vanilla rap interlude), but it includes a brief skit starring two other members of the group. This sketch, which completely reflects *NSYNC's happily self-deprecating off-camera sense of humor, is by far the only really funny part of the whole film, and the two hilarious guest stars end up walking away with the whole movie. It just goes to show that the wrong pair from within the group was handed the movie deal.
(written October 18, 2001)
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On the Line review/© Michael Dequina