With infrequent exceptions, movies derived from recurrent "Saturday Night Live" skits have been a reliable source of mediocrity -- and the just mildly funny sketches involving Molly Shannon's Mary Katherine Gallagher character didn't suggest her promotion to feature length would break this pattern. But "Superstar" proves a pleasant surprise.

Mary Katherine Gallagher - Molly Shannon Sky - Will Ferrell Evian - Elaine Hendrix Slater - Harland Williams Father Ritley - Mark McKinney Grandma - Glynis Johns Helen - Emmy Laybourne

With infrequent exceptions, movies derived from recurrent “Saturday Night Live” skits have been a reliable source of mediocrity — and the just mildly funny nature of sketches involving Molly Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher character didn’t suggest her promotion to feature length would break this pattern. But “Superstar” proves a pleasant surprise. Deftly directed by Bruce McCulloch, this amusing, if uneven, comedy could build on good word of mouth to outpace most “SNL” spinoffs at the box office, though it probably won’t hit the high commercial bar set by the “Wayne’s World” pics.

Figure created by Shannon is a pratfall-prone, exuberantly clumsy, hypergeeky 17-year-old with delusions of showbiz grandeur — though her main “talent” consists of delivering melodramatic monologues from 1970s TV movies. Orphaned (her parents, we learn, died in a tragic step-dancing accident) and raised by a grandmother (Glynis Johns), she applies a usually misguided pluck to every situation at her cliquish Catholic high school, resorting to nervous armpit-sniffing whenever disaster results.

Mary Katherine’s dream is to become a superstar, and to engineer an equally stellar first kiss. Winning the school’s talent contest (a Catholic Teenage Magazine-sponsored Let’s Fight Venereal Disease fund-raiser) just might clinch that first goal. But the second is complicated by the fact that her chosen dreamboat, campus football star Sky (Will Ferrell), is already going out with the perfectly blond, bitchy and bulimic Evian (Elaine Hendrix). Waiting on the sidelines is smitten Slater (Harland Williams), a mute, seemingly dangerous but sensitive leather-jacketed tough guy.

Steven Wayne Koren’s screenplay drop-kicks entertaining spoofs of “Armageddon” and “Carrie,” as well as funny musical numbers amid the well-tuned, slapsticky high school satire. Invention flags somewhat after the halfway point, but rallies for Mary Katherine’s climactic talent show extravaganza and some good closing gags.

McCulloch, a member of the Canadian sketch troupe Kids in the Hall (and helmer of the recent “Dog Park”), provides more directorial personality here than most “SNL”-derived features get — the cheerily absurd, color-saturated atmosphere recalls John Waters’ “Hairspray” as well as the Kids’ own underrated bigscreen effort, “Brain Candy.” He gives a cast of talented comics plenty of room for riffing, even if their material isn’t always inspired.

Beyond Shannon and Ferrell’s mirthful turns, there are notably funny performances by Emmy Laybourne as Mary Katherine’s best friend in her “special-education” class of fellow misfits, and Kids/”SNL” staple Mark McKinney as the school’s kindly priest-principal. Stage and screen vet Johns proves rather less at home in this style of comedy, however, and her scenes drag a bit.

Candy-hued production design — the school’s official colors are aqua and burgundy — abets the general silliness, with good tech contributions all around.

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Production: A Paramount release presented in association with SNL Studios. Produced by Lorne Michaels. Executive producers, Robert K. Weiss, Susan Cavan. Co-producers, Erin Fraser, Steven Wayne Koren. Directed by Bruce McCulloch. Screenplay, Steven Wayne Koren, based on a character created by Molly Shannon.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color), Walt Lloyd; editor, Malcolm Campbell; music, Michael Gore; music supervisor, Elliot Lurie; production designer, Gregory Keen; art director, Peter Grundy; set decorator, Doug McCullough; costume designer, Eydi Caines-Floyd; sound (Dolby Digital), Dan Munro; supervising sound editors, Randle Akerson, David B. Cohn; associate producer, Albert Botha; assistant director, Lisa Campbell; casting, Phyllis Huffman. Reviewed at AMC Kabuki 8, San Francisco, Oct. 6, 1999. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 82 MIN.

With: Mary Katherine Gallagher - Molly Shannon Sky - Will Ferrell Evian - Elaine Hendrix Slater - Harland Williams Father Ritley - Mark McKinney Grandma - Glynis Johns Helen - Emmy Laybourne

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