When I was a kid, I was always a little baffled by the presence of Brenda Starr, Reporter in the funny pages. For one thing, it wasn't particularly funny. In my newspaper, it was always near the bottom right side of the page alongside a couple of other dramatic strips (the worst of which was the well-intentioned but perpetually bland Mark Trail). I always read these, because hey, at least they were comic strips, but I could never manage to get invested in the assorted misadventures of Mr. Trail, Ms. Starr or their other serious-minded lower right corner companions. However, evidently someone found Brenda Starr, Reporter fairly compelling, as the strip managed to last an impressive 71 years (it was retired in 2011). Alternately, the big-screen adaptation of the strip disappeared from theatres so quickly that many might be surprised to learn it actually exists.
Brenda Starr was released in U.S. theatres in 1992, and as such, I assumed that it was some sort of attempt to capitalize on the success of Warren Beatty's 1990 adaptation of Dick Tracy (another comic strip movie which treated the source material as an opportunity for stylish, old-fashioned camp). Surprisingly, the movie was shot all the way back in 1986, a whopping six years before it reached American viewers. Various distribution rights issues placed the film in legal limbo, and co-star Timothy Dalton's entire tenure as James Bond came and went between the time the movie was shot and the time it was released. When the movie was finally given a limited theatrical release, audiences and critics responded so negatively that the film was yanked from theatres immediately. Its box office total: a mere $30,000. Did the movie deserve such a cruel fate? Much as I'd love to report that Brenda Starr is a hidden gem (or at least a compelling misfire), the truth is that it's pretty horrible.
The framework for the tale is surprisingly – and clumsily – metatexual. In the opening moments, Brenda Starr is the exact same person she is in the real world: a fictional character being drawn on on a daily basis. The artist currently responsible for producing the strip is Mike Randall (Tony Peck, Sliver), a hired gun who has no emotional investment in his work. Over the past few months, he's grown to resent Starr and her tedious adventures, and one day he makes the mistake of verbalizing his frustrations. Suddenly, Starr becomes resentful, leaves the pages of the comic strip and begins conducting an adventure in the real world (where she's played by Brooke Shields, The Blue Lagoon). Randall panics, and begins a desperate search for the star of his strip.
Starr's real-world mission is to find an eccentric scientist (Henry Gibson, Nashville) who seems to have discovered a brand-new energy source in Amazon jungle. Starr knows this is a huge story, but she's facing serious competition from rival reporter Libby “Lips” Lipscomb (Diana Scarwid, Mommie Dearest) and from a Russian agent (Jeffrey Tambor, Arrested Development) who would love to secure the energy source for his government. Meanwhile, Starr also begins conducting a romantic relationship with the mysterious Basil St. John (Timothy Dalton, The Living Daylights), an eyepatch-sporting millionaire who has a habit of appearing and disappearing at surprising moments.
The opening credits of Brenda Starr are fairly enjoyable, as Johnny Mandel's energetic, old-fashioned score plays over images of pencils and paintbrushes bringing comic strip panels to life. Then the movie begins, and it immediately becomes clear that we're in for a long 93 minutes. Most of the actors have been encouraged to play their roles with over-the-top cartoonishness, but the material isn't smart enough to make the whole tongue-in-cheek routine work. Instead of delivering something that feels deliberately old-fashioned and charmingly corny, Brenda Starr feels like a movie trying to cover the fact that it's bad by attempting to persuade viewers that it's intentionally bad. Regardless, it's incredibly tedious.
Brooke Shields has never been much of an actress, and she struggles to bring any real definition to the title character. The part begs for someone with the smart, unflappable presence of Maureen O'Hara, and Shields doesn't have the presence required to pull it off. The film doesn't help her much, either, treating the character as a stereotypical “girl reporter” who's just as obsessed with high heels and men as she is with getting a big scoop. Starr ultimately gets swallowed up by the noise of her own movie, as one manic, sloppy action sequence after another awkwardly attempts to jumpstart the film. It would be bad enough if the movie presented itself as a straightforward adventure, but the fourth wall-busting scenes involving the comic strip artist make the whole thing even more insufferable. The film alternately resembles a '40s serial, a self-aware farce, a Roger Corman B-movie and an overstuffed '80s blockbuster, and it's terrible in all of those modes. To its credit, Brenda Starr did manage to give me a greater appreciation for its source material: those banal strips feel Pulitzer-worthy in contrast.
Rating: ½★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Year: 1992