Having gone through a few different titles on its ignominious path to the bigscreen, “Glitter” deserves yet another title: “A Star Is Dull.” As phony a vehicle as one could possibly concoct for a wannabe movie star, pic carries Mariah Carey into a swamp of gloppy melodrama. As Carey’s alter-ego Billie Frank rises to the top, her makeup is never out of place, but that is about the only thing that’s visibly correct about Carey’s uncomfortable debut performance. Postponed release dates and Carey’s chronicled emotional breakdown are actually the least of the project’s problems — the greatest being the project itself. Although “Glitter” will draw Carey’s passionately loyal fan base for opening weekend, after that, pic is on a song and a prayer.
An eight-minute prelude profiling young Billie (Isabel Gomes) and her struggling singer mom Lillian (Valarie Pettiford) is shot by lenser Geoffrey Simpson under Vondie Curtis-Hall’s direction with some sensitivity and atmospherics, stylized with a modified bleached-color process. The mother-daughter tale is instantly maudlin — tragedy forces Lillian to put Billie in a foster home — but it does send out hopeful hints that Hall may be continuing down the promising path he started on in his first work behind the camera, “Gridlock’d.”
Those hopes are immediately dashed as the action rushes forward to 1983, when a sexy, grown-up Billie is dancing with fellow singer-dancers Louise (Da Brat) and Roxanne (Tia Texada) in what looks like a replica of Studio 54. Billie’s gals get on her case when she rejects hot producer Timothy Walker’s (Terrence Howard) offer to join him as a backup group. It seems Billie’s instincts were right when Walker records her voice so that statuesque but tone-deaf lead singer Sylk (Padma Lakshmi) need only lip-synch, but a chance encounter with equally hot DJ Julian Dice (Max Beesley) proves Billie’s big break.
“You got sumpin’ special,” Julian notes, and he wastes no time cutting a demo tape of her soloing and, more darkly, working out a deal with Walker, who demands $100,000 for the rights to Billie’s contract. Ever the operator, Julian gets the tape into the hands of CMZ Records A&R honchos Guy (Dorian Harewood) and Jack (Grant Nickalls), who promptly sign her. Then, it’s on to a whirlwind of happy recording sessions and an unhappy video shoot, which this manifestly silly movie has the nerve to lampoon.
Over half of “Glitter’s” running time is a series of procedural steps up the ladder of success, but Cheryl L. West’s story and Kate Lanier’s script reduce Billie to the role of spectator — as if somebody else is dragging her up that ladder, and she’s just making sure she doesn’t lose her footing. Such an overwhelmingly passive central character is bad enough, but Carey, a pop star playing a pop star, looks puzzled as to how to bring her character alive. Billie may be directed by an increasing army of handlers, but no amount of handling appears to help Carey make any scene even remotely genuine.
When the label recruits another producer to turn Billie into a dance diva, Julian feels he’s being pushed out, making this mostly Julian’s drama and, finally, tragedy. This puts much of the weight on Beesley’s shoulders, and though the Brit thesp responds with a performance in thoroughly American guise, he’s made to resemble Mark Wahlberg to an absurd degree. Beesley also gets the lion’s share of the worst lines, especially when Julian lapses near the end into apologetic mode, and the final picture is of a promising actor trapped in an impossible role.
Hall and editor Jeff Freeman unimaginatively pace these ups and downs like a TV drama, bridging scenes with repeated “NYPD Blue”-style whip pans across Manhattan. Two shots feature the now-destroyed World Trade Center, and though there’s no reason to cut them out, since action is set some 15 years ago, there is one awkward result: Immediately after one such shot, Carey’s Billie is seen wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Bombshell.”
Carey, who also served as music producer, dominates the all-important tracks with her breathy warbling, but her ’90s-era contempo R&B sound isn’t demonstrably altered to fit the ’80s. Amid standard-issue production credits, the props — especially several music instruments — are period-perfect.