You Tried: Richard E. Grant in 'Spice World'

You Tried celebrates remarkable performances in widely hated films – actors who kept us watching long after we should’ve left the cinema in disgust. Eliza Janssen chooses one such role each month and figures out its appeal amidst an otherwise shit movie.

THE MOVIE: Spice World (1997), a musical comedy film vehicle for the Spice Girls.

WHY IT SUCKS: In the nineties, the Spice Girls acted as a glittery papier-mache facsimile of third-wave feminism; a mostly white group of hot girls who sang about how female friendship “never ends” and brought about world peace by raising their fingers in a peace sign towards any and every camera.

They got famous enough in 1997 to warrant an A Hard Day’s Night-esque (1964) comedy film following the girl group throughout an exhausting episodic narrative, leading up to a big climatic performance at Albert Hall. The way there is fraught with wacky dream sequences and tit-grabbing aliens, all in service of a hypocritical narrative about the hollowness of fame ― the Spice Girls would of course break up a few years later, meaning the film really sets the gals up for failure with all its crowing of family values and loyalty above ambition. Yikes.

Spice World is ultimately harmless ― ideal for a 12 year old’s sleepover party in 1997 – but its critique of commercialisation is nowhere near as incisive or fun as similar films like 2001’s still-sharp Josie and the Pussycats. It’s the highest grossing film by a musical group of all time, though, so what do I know.

THE PERFORMANCE: Richard E. Grant as the Spice Girls’ beleaguered manager, Clifford.

WHY IT’S GREAT: Remember when Richard E. Grant was robbed of his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor? Okay, yes he should’ve won for his turn as rakish tragicomic figure Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), but at least he was nominated for that.

I’m talking about Grant’s revelatory work as Clifford, the anchoring performance in a movie desperately in need of grounding. Clifford acts as a foil to the Spice Girls’ free-wheeling, colourful world of pop music and platform shoes, designed to quickly hobble girl group members so they can be replaced when they exceed the acceptable age of 25. He’s meant to be a wet blanket ― an eye-rolling paternalistic handler who we yearn to see won over by the power of uhhhhhhhhh girl power.

But Clifford is kind of right tbh?

His job is to volley the Spice Girls from gig to gig, a role he performs with aplomb when the girls themselves don’t get in his way. He stands up for his clients when they’re uncomfortable at the sexualisation of their performance in Milan, and promises that he loves them “like a wildebeest loves five lionesses chewing on his legs”.

In return for his hard work, Clifford is paid absolute DUST. And in any other actor’s hands, that patheticness would merely function as a sliver of comic relief in a movie that’s like 90% comic relief and 10% earnest concert footage of the Spice Girls. Grant, however, makes Clifford human, which unfortunately throws the five lead performances into negative contrast (except for Victoria Beckham; second funniest performance in the movie, intentionally or no).

Grant can’t help it – everything that’s meant to be off-putting about Clifford is instead totally relatable and hilarious. His vulgar 90s corporate wardrobe of shiny suits, ridiculous speed dealer sunnies, and thorny sideburns is accidentally iconic, and that’s saying something in a film in which the five protagonists can be better described by their colour schemes than their personalities (especially Ginger please sis get another ‘thing’).

BEST MOMENT: Clifford’s austere promise to hang himself on national television is both hilarious and deeply threatening ― Grant’s pupils shrink to pinpricks, and for a second you realise he probably auditioned to play Hannibal Lecter. Then Scary Spice busts into the room and says EYYY CLIFFAHD WOSS APPENIN??? and the spell is broken.

DID RICHARD E. GRANT REDEEM SPICE WORLD?: It’s difficult to be too critical of Spice World, a film which practically busts an eyelid with all the wink-winking it does towards the audience. Whilst Spice World is categorically not good, I also can’t really think of how it could be improved, since it’s such a distinct cultural item ― to make it better would be to neuter its harebrained nostalgic appeal.

Without Grant’s commitment to playing the straight man, though, Spice World is a limp film – an excuse for celebrities like Bob Geldof and Meat Loaf to make tired cameos in a disposable artefact from the next generation of musicians. I’m kind of mad he doesn’t get inducted into the band by the end of the film as an honorary Spice Girl ― Sideburn Spice. 

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Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit elizajanssen.com / @eliza_janssen

Eliza Janssen