Once somebody weds a complete stranger for money on national television it’s generally assumed that TV and society have sunk to a new low. But when some of society’s worst traits are played out under the guise of a feel-good teen movie for the “Wonderful World of Disney,” you know we’ve hit rock bottom.
On the surface, “Model Behavior,” based on the book “Janine & Alex, Alex & Janine,” by Michael Levin, is supposed to be an uplifting tale about an ugly duckling and a beautiful swan who switch places and gain insight on their respective lives. But lurking beneath the clunky and forced moralizations that come only in the closing minutes is a string of insidious messages delivered by the pic’s perky young stars. These messages are practically guaranteed to reach a very large young audience thanks to the fact that “Model Behavior” features the acting debut of Justin Timberlake of ‘N Sync.
Mark Twain’s “Prince and the Pauper” storyline has been a staple of kids movies and paves the way here for dowdy high school student Alex Burrows to switch lives with supermodel Janine Adams (Maggie Lawson in a dual role).
The bespectacled Alex, enthralled by the Annie Hall look, pines after BMOC Eric (Jesse Nilsson), while her dreams of becoming a fashion designer are hampered by the demands of her father’s catering business. Alex, too timid to say no to her father’s rigorous work schedule and too insecure to go after Eric, is miserable in her predicament.
Meanwhile, supermodel and superbrat Janine drools over cooking shows and longs for a normal teen life instead of a fully booked schedule and an overbearing stage mom, played all too convincingly by Kathie Lee Gifford.
When the two girls meet at an event catered by Alex’s dad and realize their remarkable resemblance, the two decide to switch identities to see how the other half lives.
As Janine, Alex humanizes the tantrum-prone model’s image while making time with fellow superstar Jason Sharp (Timberlake), while the confident Janine, as Alex, bucks the school’s social hierarchy and goes after the elusive Eric.
Writers David Kukoff and Matt Roshkow obviously intended to devise a mad-cap comedy of errors that stresses the benefits of accepting yourself as you are. But all of the pretty faces and pop music stars paraded in the film can’t dilute the real underlying messages, which when considering the intended audience, can be very dangerous.
Both Janine and Alex are obsessed with dieting and body image and in fact, even though Alex is identical to a supermodel, has low-self esteem and is deemed ugly and unpopular, mostly, it seems, because she wears glasses.
Other lessons: Parents are easily duped by teenagers — that is when they are not exploiting them as a source of income; students talk back to teachers; superficial boyfriends are the object of desire; and little brothers secretly videotape their sisters in hopes of gaining fame and fortune on a tabloid show.
Obviously, pic is not to be taken seriously. But when producers so pointedly target a specific audience — in this case, teenage girls — there is a moral responsibility on their part as to how they present certain situations. On that count, the producers fail miserably.
Lawson, however, is certainly an appealing young actress and offers up a decent perf despite the inherent absurdities of the story.
At the risk of inciting teen fans everywhere, it’s safe to say that Timberlake should stick to his day job with ‘N Sync considering Nilsson, as heartthrob Eric, is far more appealing than the stiff and expressionless Timberlake.
Besides a nauseating turn by the ghoulish-looking Gifford, other performances are purely superficial — case in point, the auspicious acting debut of Cody Gifford as Janine’s precocious brother Max.
Musical numbers performed by teen act Nobody’s Angels enhance the production, which by technical standards, meets all of the usual requirements.