Second time out as an actress proves luckier than the first for Mariah Carey, downsizing from her disastrous debut headliner "Glitter" to a more modest co-starring role in "Wisegirls" with charm and relaxed assurance.

This review was corrected on Feb. 11, 2002.

Second time out as an actress proves luckier than the first for Mariah Carey, downsizing from her disastrous debut headliner “Glitter” to a more modest co-starring role in “Wisegirls” with charm and relaxed assurance. A refreshingly femme-slanted take on familiar mob territory, this story of three waitresses in a Mafia-owned New York restaurant is fueled by the appealing rapport among leads Mira Sorvino, Carey and Melora Walters.

Directed with very conventional efficiency by David Anspaugh (“Hoosiers”), the drama’s script keeps enough surprises up its sleeve to remain entertaining. Its themes of female bonding and friendship suggest a theatrical target of young women, with a more solid afterlife in ancillary.

Returning from Missouri to stay with her grandmother on Staten Island, med school graduate Meg (Sorvino) takes work at an Italian restaurant. She quickly befriends fellow waitress Kate (Walters), who aspires to be a Broadway dancer; she more gradually warms to brassy co-worker Raychel (Carey), who doles out sass to staff and customers alike. As the trio solidifies into an inseparable unit, Meg opens up to her friends about the devastating recent loss of her fiance.

But the comfort of this newfound camaraderie is compromised by Meg’s growing awareness that the eaterie is not only a mob-owned concern frequented by armed thugs, but one that fronts for a drug-dealing operation, of which Raychel and possibly Kate appear to be aware. Struggling to pull her life back together, Meg is drawn deeper into the world, finding herself obliged to accept the monetary tokens of the boss Mr. Santalino (Arthur J. Nascarella), while fending off the romantic attentions of his son Frankie (Christian Maelen).

When Meg unwittingly prompts father and son to erase the cheating restaurant manager (Joseph Siravo), and is then forced — somewhat implausibly– to help dispose of the body, she is cornered by police into gathering crucial evidence against the Santalinos, placing her own life and that of her friends in danger. Two well-kept plot secrets revealed in the closing stretch pave the way– following a bloody faceoff between cops and mobsters — to an upbeat, satisfying conclusion.

Sorvino ably conveys Meg’s transition, under the influences both of friendship and of a tough, unfamiliar environment, from initially melancholy, withdrawn and unforthcoming to being the smart, assured woman she clearly was before tragedy struck. Walters registers weakly at first, her character appearing a little thinly drawn and unformed. But this makes sense when certain key revelations allow her to emerge from her shell and expose a tougher persona. The real surprise, however, and by far the most engaging performance, is Carey, giving trash-talking, husky-voiced Raychel plenty of heart as well as chutzpah and sexy attitude.

While technical problems caused a repeated sound glitch with the world-premiere Sundance screening, craft contributions on the small-scale $8.5 million production generally are straightforward and clean.

Wisegirls

Production

A Lions Gate Films/Leading Pictures/Intermedia Films presentation of an Anthony Esposito/Lions Gate Entertainment production in association with Champion Entertainment, Essential Films, RGH/Lions Share Pictures. (International sales: Intermedia, Los Angeles.) Produced by Anthony Esposito, Jack Sojka, Bill Blum, Billy Blake. Executive producers, Gena Scriva Esposito, Jessica Russell, Dale Poniewaz. Co-producers, Peter Block, Guy Stodel, Jean Fox. Directed by David Anspaugh. Screenplay, John Meadows.

Crew

Camera (color), Johhny Jensen; editor, Christopher Cibelli; music, Keith Forsey; production designer, Laura MacNutt; art director, MacNutt; set decorator, Barbara Luxton; costume designer, Stephen Brown; sound, David Lee; line producer, Richard Brams; associate producers, Nichole Cheril, Shelly Poniewaz, Mark Austin; assistant director, Erika Beringer; casting, Sig De Miguel. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Surprise Screenings), Jan. 13, 2002. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Meg - Mira Sorvino
Raychel - Mariah Carey
Kate - Melora Walters
Mr. Santalino - Arthur Nascarella
Umberto - Saul Stein
Gio - Joseph Siravo
Frankie - Christian Maelen
Lorenzo - Anthony Alessandro
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