Reflecting On the “Bubble Gum Banality” of ‘From Justin to Kelly’ On Its Tenth Anniversary

By  · Published on June 20th, 2013

Over a decade into American Idol, and it’s easy to forget that the one-time runaway success and pop culture phenomenon has not only turned out twelve winners (can you name more than two? No, no, more than the big two?) over a mind-boggling 475 episodes, but also one roundly dismissed feature film. The idea behind From Justin to Kelly is almost charming – until you remember that stars Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini were contractually obligated to do it and also that the final product is just awful. Why not make a feature film starring two nice kids who have just become America’s sweethearts? Why not throw a bone to Justin Guarini, who just lost out on his dream in front of the entire country? Why not resurrect some good old-fashioned beach blanket hanky?

Why indeed.

From Justin to Kelly hit theaters ten years ago today, just nine months after Clarkson won the first season of American Idol, rocketing to superstardom in a way that’s actually worthy of that cliché-laden statement. The plot of From Justin to Kelly is, of course, very simple (and cribbed from Where the Boys Are). Kelly Clarkson plays, well, she plays someone named Kelly, and Justin Guarini plays someone named Justin, presumably for ease of audience understanding and probably to make this thing called “acting” a bit easier. The pair meet on spring break in Florida, complications ensue on their wacky road to love, Harmony Korine never bothers to show up, stuff like that. It’s sanitized, sweet stuff, all set to music and horrendously bad choreography. There is nothing that happens in From Justin to Kelly that could be considered bold, groundbreaking, or even remotely surprising. At eighty-one minutes (ninety on the extended cut!) and even with all those musical numbers, it still feels whole hours longer. While “it’s boring” is not an objective observation by any stretch, most people can agree – From Justin to Kelly is just really boring.

It looks and feels and moves like a bad television movie, and it was honored as such – with eight nominations for “Stinkers Bad Movie Awards” (sadly, it didn’t win “Worst Fake Accent,” but it did grab a Stinker for “Worst Song”) and nine Razzie Awards nominations (it was honored in 2005 as “Worst Musical of Our First 25 Years”). Amusingly enough, it was also nominated for three Teen Choice Awards (it didn’t win any).

Like many bad movies, the best part about From Justin to Kelly were the reviews for From Justin to Kelly, the vast majority of which were highly negative but also amusingly baffled by the film’s very existence. Sure, we all know why the film was made, but that doesn’t stop anyone with good sense to bemoan, why was this film made?

But it wasn’t just amazement that the production even made it to the screen that punctuated review for From Justin to Kelly, most critics also hit about the film’s most blatant flaws: bad sound design, bad choreography, bad chemistry between the leads, a plot that can’t even be called bad so much as nonexistent, and a general sense of banality and insipidity that can’t be ignored.

A visit to the film’s Rotten Tomatoes page (it weighs in at just 7%) gifts us with such reviews as Frank Ochieng’s (which is responsible for the “bubble gum banality” portion of this piece’s title), Maitland McDonagh’s TV Guide review calling it “artless” and “uninspired,” Laura Sinagra’s Village Voice review that nods to its “surreality,” the Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter flogging it as “industrial-strength insipidity diluted only marginally by bad music and worse dancing,” Rene Rodriquez of the Miami Herald rightly pointing out that it’s “curiously asexual,” and Mike McGranaghan over at Aisle Seat summing it up quite nicely: “this movie is a joke, and I know it as both critic and fan.” Nick Rogers from the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL had the most imaginative take on the film, writing that “messages that read ‘I O U A BRGR. U GAME?’ …propel the plot forward. Alas, all the scenes in which Prince hijacks the cell phones have been left on the cutting room floor.” Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman has the last word, however, memorably telling us “How bad is From Justin to Kelly? Set in Miami during spring break, it’s like Grease: The Next Generation acted out by the food-court staff at SeaWorld.” That’s precisely this film in a nutshell. A soggy, soggy nutshell.

But while From Justin to Kelly was an unmitigated flop (it made just $5M at the box office, despite a weirdly large budget of $12M) that was rushed to home video less than a month after hitting theaters and that never even got an official soundtrack, the strangest thing about the film is that it didn’t ruin the careers of everyone involved. No, really.

Kelly Clarkson is not only the biggest success story of From Justin to Kelly, but she’s arguably the biggest success story of American Idol (Carrie Underwood continually nips at her heels, and if you go more for country twang, she’s easily your personal American Idol). She has sold over 20 million albums worldwide, along with accumulating eighty-three number ones on the Billboard charts and eleven number one singles worldwide. She also has three Grammy Awards, three MTV Video Music Awards, twelve Billboard Music Awards, four American Music Awards, and a Women’s World Award. Billboard recently ranked Clarkson as the 14th-best-selling artist of the 2000s. See? Even starring in one of the worst movies ever made doesn’t mean your career is over (though Clarkson hasn’t starred in a movie since.

Justin Guarini still makes music (no, really), has a number of TV hosting gigs for various outlets, and even made his Broadway debut back in 2011.

Katherine Bailess, who played Kelly’s scheming pal Alexa, still acts and even has a scripted show on VH1 (it’s about NBA cheerleaders, but still).

Justin’s friends, Brandon (Greg Siff) and Eddie (Brian Dietzen) still act, though Dietzen’s long-running role on NCIS probably makes him the more recognizable star (okay, yes, it absolutely makes him the more recognizable star).

Director Robert Iscove has made a whole mess of television movies, including the High School Musical rip-off, Spectacular! Hey, he’s still working and he always gets to be the guy who directed She’s All That (someone call M. Night Shyamalan).

Screenwriter Kim Fuller wrote Spice World before he wrote From Justin to Kelly, so the guy knows adversity. He, like Iscove, still works in television.

Did we forget someone? Nope. While Clarkson is obviously the big star who emerged from From Justin to Kelly relatively unscathed (thank goodness for ladies needing tunes for their girls’ nights out), there’s another one – Anika Noni Rose. That’s right, the Dreamgirl and Princess (and the Frog) co-starred in From Justin to Kelly, and she not only won a Tony for her stage work, she won it just a year after this movie came out. True success!

Happy birthday, From Justin to Kelly!