Micro-mini cars, depressingly generic apartment blocks and out-of-date fashions give Everybody's Famous! the peculiar time-warp look of a Russian or Eastern European town. Western consumer goods and optimism seem to have passed over this Flemish town, where what remains of its work force slaves away at a dismal glass bottle factory. In every way, Everybody's Famous! captures a reality that yearns to be escaped. And that yearning is the primary avocation of 45-year-old Jean Vereecken (Josse De Pauw), who still sports the droopy '70s sideburns and delusional dreaminess of a perpetual teenager.
Like American pageant moms drunk on rouge and hairspray, Jean's imagined ticket to ride is his glum, chubby 17-year-old daughter Marva (Eve Van der Gucht), whom he figures as the country's next Britney Spears.
And if the talent-show circuit (a parade of kitschy provincialism straight out of Aki Kaurismaki) where Marva makes her rounds is any indication, the Vereecken family are not the only ones playing the stardom lottery. Mom and Pop sit spellbound and adoring in the audience as their beloved daughter performs as Madonna or some other pop icon while her competitors sing Otis Redding tunes or moonwalk and squeal in imitation of American chart toppers like Michael Jackson.
In director Dominique Deruddere's vision of contemporary Belgium, the synthesizer, not the Bible, is the opiate of the masses in a nation in thrall to the escapism of pop music, whether decked out in American bubblegum music's borrowed garb and lyrics or tuned in each night to the Top 40 report on the TV news.
Perhaps motivated by his recent dismissal from his factory job, Jean and a young co-worker, Willy (Werner De Smedt), kidnap the country's reigning pop diva, Debbie (Thekla Reuten), a beautiful, melancholy chanteuse whose success is astronomical but whose enjoyment of her work is diminishing. Sequestering her in a remote cabin, Jean negotiates with her sleazy, money-driven manager -- not for a ransom payment but something far loopier. Jean wants a professional recording released of Marva singing one of his compositions.
Beneath the kooky goings-on in Everybody's Famous! is some troubling, often moving material, including Jean's desperation to help his daughter escape the same dire fate of factory wage slavery. Jean's is the pure, blind love of a father who looks past his daughter's media-unfriendly chubbiness and insolence and sees a diva.
Everybody's Famous! most often resembles the kind of Full Monty or Brassed Off European flotsam that periodically washes up on our shores. Translating the agonies of the economically strapped working class into fluffy comedy where all is right in the end, such films are Norma Rae meets "Laverne and Shirley." Cognizant of the increasing economic woes of many peoples' lives, such films slap Muppet-decorated Band-Aids on open wounds and ultimately trivialize the plight of the underprivileged.
But Deruddere's film is far more amusing and thoughtful than either of those Brit-hits. Though it eventually succumbs to the same compulsion for an upbeat ending, it's hard to shake the glum, hopeless ambiance of the film's first half.
Eventually all the hurdles placed in Jean and Marva's way -- exploitive managers, a superficial entertainment business, job lay-offs -- fall away when Marva performs her heartfelt paean to the working man's "Lucky Manuelo" on live television.
Rather than a cynical affirmation of the common man's desire to drink at the fountain of celebrity, which the film's first half suggests, Everybody's Famous! suggests Deruddere is aiming for something a little more hopeful and escapist in his life-affirming tribute to the plucky spirit of Everymen like Jean.