Papa Lou's Vanity Project Case File #101 Longshot (2001)
If you’re me, which, demonstrably, some of you are, genetically at least, you have been chasing fraudulent blimp magnate and disgraced boy band Svengali Lou Pearlman deep down a rabbit hole these past few months or so. First, I read The Hit Charade, the wonderfully entertaining book about Pearlman’s life and crimes. I followed it up with Brands, Bands and Billions: My Top Ten Rules for Making Any Business Go Platinum, his memoir/business manual/infomercial/epic exercise in self-delusion and self-mythologizing.
I’m following it up with the 2001 Pearlman vanity project Longshot, which reportedly cost an insane twenty million dollars to make yet in God’s own United States skipped theaters so it could be hawked on TV via infomercials like a Ronco Pocket Fisherman. I have a hard time believing the movie cost twenty million, partially because Pearlman doesn’t exactly have a reputation for honesty when it comes to numbers but also because this seems more like a movie that cost zero dollars to make.
Like his tall tale of a memoir, the teenybopper romp provides heartbreaking insight into how Pearlman saw himself and his place in the world. It is at once an X-ray into Pearlman’s soul and a tacky strip mall of a project less concerned with fulfilling even the bare minimum of being a movie than in shamelessly hyping Pearlman’s various ventures, music related and otherwise. It’s a synergistic business endeavor first and foremost and a creative endeavor a distant second.
It’s pretty much Lou Pearlman’s Smile Time Music and Comedy Funstravaganza, with Special Guest stars Gilbert Gottfried and Art Garfunkel (Pearlman’s first cousin) as a steady stream of fresh faces from Pearlman’s boy bands mug for the camera in cameos that clumsily call attention to themselves in ways that border on surreal.
Early in the film, for example, Lance Bass, playing “Flight engineer” frets “We’ve lost all communication with air traffic controlI I don’t know what the problem is but they’ve got to get in sync” before looking sheepishly at the camera. Not to be outdone, a montage sequence of two characters falling in love to the LFO smash “Summer Girls” is followed by the Extreme-sampling pop hit popping back up on the soundtrack so that LFO frontman Rich Cronin can stumble clumsily and reluctantly into frame as a police officer so he can ogle a woman before mumbling, “Hey, looks like a summa girl!” in his impossibly thick Boston accent.
You know, like that one song he did!
The movie opens on a pointlessly, self-defeatingly meta note, with the members of the second generation, second rate Pearlman and television-created boy band O-Town watching a cheesy infomercial featuring pitchmen who look suspiciously like themselves giving the hard sell for a cheesy-ass videotape entitled Longshot.
That’s right, friends. They’re watching an infomercial for a movie they’re in. And that we are watching as well! That’s what Ionesco would call some fucked up shit.
Literally every person who appears in the movie other Pearlman, Art Garfunkel, Paul Sorvino, Dustin Diamond and Gilbert Gottfried was cast because they look like a male underwear model and, secondarily, might be good at singing, yet inexplicably none of these pretty boys’ pouty faces adorn the video box for the infomercial-within-a-film for Longshot, just the project’s unsexy, misleading name.
O-Town do some ad-libbing and improvisation around this fourth wall-busting scenario. Let’s just say the members of the Orlando-based prefabricated boy band were chosen for their high cheekbones and perfect skin and not because they took a bunch of courses at Second City and formed a pretty tight little improv team back in college.
We then begin the movie proper, a puzzling featherweight teen romance/adult corporate espionage light comedy about Alex Taylor (Joey Sculthorpe), a ponytail-sporting, insecure jock hunk the movie inexplicably insists on depicting as both an underdog and an archetype, not a confused jumble of personality types it doesn’t understand.
Alex misses a big shot early in the film. This sets up an amusingly literal journey for redemption where, apropos of nothing, he’s called upon to make an even bigger shot later as part of the halftime entertainment for a celebrity charity game, a “long shot”, as it were, in the sense of being a basketball shot and in terms of being long, at the very end of the film.
That, friends, is the level of storytelling we’re dealing with here, which combines the stiffly homoerotic amateurishness of A Talking Cat!?! with clumsy self-mythologizing from a soon-to-be-disgraced and imprisoned scoundrel who not only gives himself an extended cameo as a do-gooder who helps our heroes out of a pure heart but casts himself as a cop bringing down the corpulent bad guy for financial chicanery.
Longshot exists largely as a ramshackle housing device for celebrity cameos from the Pearlman's plastic empire of beefy young men. So it would make sense to set it in the teen pop realm the hefty mogul dominated. Nope. Pearlman, who helped dream up the film’s story, savvily realized that kids love nothing better than stories of corporate espionage because Longshot is largely devoted to the teenybopper-friendly story of Jack Taylor (Tony DeCamallis, who also wrote the screenplay and unsurprisingly never acted or wrote on a film again) a sexy personal trainer with a gift for driving the ladies wild being blackmailed by a mob boss played by Paul Sorvino into getting confidential information from Rachel Montgomery (Hunter Tylo), a widow in a perilous spot financially after her husband’s passing.
This sub-nighttime soap opera subplot quickly swallows up the rest of the film when Alex, our vacant, shot-missing teen hunk, whose only friend, confusingly, is a cartoonish nerd, ends up romancing the bland teenaged daughter of Rachel to the sweet, sweet accompaniment of LFO’s “Summer Girls”, which is played repeatedly. Why wouldn’t it be? After all, it does contain lyrics like, “When you take a sip/You buzz like a hornet/Billy Shakespeare wrote a whole bunch of sonnets.”
Pearlman obviously couldn’t think of anything more personally compelling than a shady businessman flagrantly flouting the law for the sake of his own personal enrichment, but it’s not clear what this storyline has to offer the film’s core demographic of pre-teen and tween girls driven to hunt the film down on videocassette in a mad quest to consume as much of their heroes in O-Town and Take-5 as humanly possible, no matter how grubby and debased the form.
Longshot doesn’t just grind to a complete halt so that Justin Timberlake can do a sassy solo comedy showcase as a boy band-hating valet with attitude who grouses about a song on the soundtrack that he himself is singing (meta!). It also awkwardly shoe-horns in embarrassing plugs for Pearlman’s other businesses. When lovebirds want some delicious pizza, where do they grab an authentic New York-style slice? Why at Lou Perlman’s NYPD—New York Pizza Department, that is!
And who’s making this mouth-watering ‘za? Why those nutty nuts from NSYNC J.C Chasez and Joey Fatone, of course, Fageddaboutit!! It's like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World only terrible and with a much more pedophile-friendly vibe.
And what about Chippendale’s!?! Obviously this homemade Lou Pearlman fanzine of a movie has to have some clumsy plugs for the venerable male stripping institution because, as all the Lou heads in the audience undoubtedly already knew, that was one of many sketchy businesses Pearlman was involved with late in his career.
Longshot even has room, of course, for Pearlman’s cousin Art Garfunkel, who plays himself as a dad purchasing an LFO CD for his son.
Pearlman called in all of his favors for Longshot. That’s the problem. It’s less a movie than an assemblage of filmed favors from people Pearlman had done business with, or planned to do business with in the future, including such faded names as Jermaine Jackson, Kenny Rogers, K.C of K.C & The Sunshine Band and Full Force. It has very little interest in telling a story, or being a movie in the first place, and gets endlessly distracted and sidetracked winking at the audience at an endless series of inside gags.
Longshot ends, bizarrely, with the return of a screamingly effeminate flight attendant who is the film’s only representation of homosexuality and one of only two two black characters, not including Dwayne Johnson, who makes his film debut as a “Mugger.” This time the flamboyant flight attendant is cursed with a stuffy and imperious Englishman and yells at the foreigner, “How can you trust a country with only ONE queen? Here we have so many!”, punctuating his zinger with a theatrically snapped wrist a la the film critics on In Living Color.
Longshot is monomaniacally focussed on ogling young male flesh in gyms, locker rooms and various other steamy places for hunks to gather yet sees gayness exclusively through the filter of minstrelsy, stereotyping and broad comedy. It’s less intent on denying its pervasive homoeroticism than it is blissfully delusional as to how it actually comes off. That’s what makes Pearlman so morbidly fascinating as a cultural figure: there’s a disconnect at once comic and tragic between how he saw himself and depicted himself, and who he actually was. That disconnect is pretty damn pronounced in a weird cinematic fantasy that cast a man who would die disgraced in prison as the good cop who helps put the obese, financially devious bad guy in jail.
I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon in my writing here at Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place I call Overcompensating Sequelitis. Essentially, the less right a woefully misguided abomination has to call itself a movie, the more likely its final moments are to impotently insist that a sequel or spin-off is imminent.
I’m thinking of movies like Mac & Me, which flat-out ended by promising a sequel, or Masters of the Universe, which ended with at least part of Skeletor coming back from the dead, threatening more havoc.
It’s as if these audacious disasters subconsciously know that they’re going down hard so they might as well swing wildly for the fences one last time, with a bold, “Pretty fucking great, huh?!? Well you can look forward to 90 more minutes of this in the not too distant future!”
In this case, the film’s meta-textual framing device, which finds the photogenic rapscallions of O-Town first surreally watching an infomercial of this very film, then the film in its entirety, and then scampering off to do whatever it is that O-Town did, closes with one of the bros from O-Town smirking directly into the camera and, once again shattering that poor, poor much abused fourth wall, quipping, “Our own movie? Why not?”
The universe saw what Pearlman was threatening—an O-Town movie in the style of Longshot—and gave it the hardest of passes.
Pearlman’s shamelessness knew no bounds, as evidenced by the fact that Longshot wraps up in about eighty endlessly padded, screamingly incompetent minutes, and then plods along for a good additional ten minutes through a combination of recycled footage of the celebrity cameos (love the Wildean wordplay of Lance Bass breaking the forth wall to talk about things with his airplane being out of sync? Then you’ll love it even more the second time around!), outtakes, bloopers, alternate takes and E!-style behind-the-scenes footage of the thespians/music makers discussing the making of the movie we’re still kind of watching and the characters they play.
Viewed within the context of Pearlman’s sinking career, there’s something undeniably tragic about Longshot. Pearlman was in a steep professional decline. His meal tickets in Backstreet Boys and NSYNC had left acrimoniously and the knockoffs weren’t anywhere near as successful. Diddy, a much savvier player and personality, would soon to be taking over MTV’s Making the Band, which in its first season gave the world O-Town.
The feds and bean counters had started snooping around the rotund grifter’s many shady, disreputable businesses yet Pearlman was wasting his time constructing a reportedly twenty million dollar celluloid monument to himself and the tacky world he had created, complete with a winking end title card promising that the law enforcement agent Pearlman so unforgettably played in his two minute cameo moved to Florida and used his pension to start a business—something in entertainment!
Oh, but I can only imagine how this joking nod to Pearlman’s real-life success as a boy band Svengali must have delighted the movie’s core audience of eleven year old girls who might be persuaded to shift their allegiance from NSYNC to an off-brand knock off like Take 5.
In light of what was to come, the movie’s smirky, goofball, in-joke tone can’t help but feel perverse, like a madcap party before an execution. Pearlman’s already abysmal reputation would suffer terribly in the years ahead but here Pearlman still delighted in playing the big macher, the outsized kid for whom every day was his birthday. By the time Longshot limped onto video shelves, the party had ended and everyone else had gone home.
Pearlman once again had all the toys and no one to share them with, and pretty soon he wouldn’t even have those, just a jumpsuit, a number, a cell and a story to tell or to hide that, needless to say, was a whole hell of a lot more interesting than the one found in Longshot, although that’s setting the bar perversely low.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco
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