A movie like "Glitter" is a rare thing indeed. It isn't every day an audience can settle into the seats knowing that what it is about to see has already sent a major performer to the happy home.
If we are to put our faith in scurrilous show-business gossip (and I absolutely think we should), watching the final cut of her seriously crummy star vehicle was the last straw in Mariah Carey's meltdown into professionally supervised "relaxation." Yes, the movie is wretched: It's an inept appropriation of already-tired ideas that it treats with absurd, lump-in-the-throat piety. But that doesn't explain why Carey herself would be traumatized by it. Haven't those qualities been hallmarks of everything she's done? Hasn't she heard her own records? When did she become Miss Self-Aware?
Carey plays Billie Frank, a mixed-race, curly-headed girlie who is forcibly separated from her alcoholic mother and grows to postadolescent hoochie-hood in the New York City club scene of the 1980s. There, a succession of music-industry players become beguiled by her natural, octave-jumping vocal abilities. Not that she does anything to promote those talents: Plucked from club-dancer anonymity, she responds to every new offer of stepped-up exposure with a meek protest that she's happy where she is, thank you. It's up to everyone around Billie to cajole her into the spotlight. She is perhaps the least active protagonist in the history of the movie musical.
Billie's voice is immediately hailed as an "amazing gift" by her floored audiences, who have apparently never heard of Whitney Houston. She also falls into a rocky relationship with DJ/record producer Julian Dice (Max Beesley), whose controlling nature and lowly industry status allow Carey to take the safest possible swipe at her real-life meal ticket, major-label poobah Tommy Mottola. One subplot has Billie and Dice clashing with professional image-makers who want to compromise her artistic integrity by forcing her to bare an indecent amount of flesh in her videos.
It's Mariah Carey.
Once Billie hits the big time, any attempt at storytelling logic goes out the window. As she prepares for her first headlining appearance at Madison Square Garden, she has left Dice's bed and gone back to crashing in a small apartment with her homegirls Roxy (Tia Texada) and Louise (rapper Da Brat). That's sound personal economics. You always want to make sure you've played the Garden two or three times before you take a risky step like getting your own place.
At least Carey proves capable of portraying herself, particularly in scenes that don't require her to simulate any complex emotions. Her unexpected semi-adequacy keeps the film from out-stumbling its dopiest '80s forebears, including "Beat Street," "Krush Groove" and everything Prince put to film after the first 60 minutes of "Purple Rain." Glitter didn't give me a nervous breakdown, but it did make me wonder what a Lisa Lisa movie would have looked like.