Uncompromisingly bleak, the artistically ambitious “Gia” is a “Boogie Nights” for the 1980s. The cautionary biopic, a mesmerizing tour de force for lead Angelina Jolie, achieves its goal of illustrating that a supermodel need not have an eating disorder to become wholly self-destructive. A needle in the arm proves just as effective as a finger down the throat.
If the Jay McInerney-Michael Cristofer teleplay tends at times to sacrifice character development for speed, and Cristofer’s direction is infused with lesbian undertones that lend the film the occasional appearance of soft-core porn, “Gia” is nonetheless a potent cinematic tragedy that passionately embodies the “live fast, die young” maxim.
Two elements drive the film into the stratosphere. One is the device of having the characters address the camera directly when speaking of Gia Carangi, the dark, fiery, moody international modeling sensation who didn’t so much make love to the lens as rape it. It gives the film a mock-documentary feel that serves the material stylishly, augmented by passages from Gia’s journal.
Secondly, there is 22-year-old Jolie — the daughter of Jon Voight — whose most visible role to date was her Golden Globe-nominated turn as Cornelia Wallace in TNT’s “Wallace.” As Gia, she is a multifaceted revelation, shifting from coquettish to nasty to violent to contrite with a breathtaking believability. The passion with which she inhabits the role is a spectacle in itself; it doesn’t hurt that she’s also a spectacular beauty.
“Gia” tells of how its protagonist packed a lot of living — and dying — into her 26 years on Earth. Gia Carangi grew up in an abusive Philadelphia home with parents (strong work from Mercedes Ruehl and Louis Giambalvo) whose marriage would dissolve when she was 11. Hamstrung by guilt and insecurity, she buried her feelings deep down and replaced them with artificial swagger while traveling to New York to conquer the modeling establishment in 1977.
Once queenmaker Wilhelmina Cooper (an uncomfortable, showy performance from Faye Dunaway) takes Gia under her wing, big things start to happen. Her tough-girl exterior and bracing, exotic looks swat her blond competition from the world stage. With Wilhelmina as surrogate mommy, she quickly becomes a cover-girl phenom while diving into a relationship with gentle makeup artist Linda (Elizabeth Mitchell).
Then comes the inevitable high-living monster — the partying till dawn, the pills, the coke, finally the heroin (whose needles would lead to her death from AIDS in 1986), all of it exacerbated by Wilhelmina’s 1980 death from lung cancer. There would be rehab, then relapse, then more rehab before the cycle continued anew.
The subtext to the story is that Gia could never be satisfied because she was so uncomfortable in her own flawless skin. She would reconcile with the mother from whom she was estranged, but the overriding theme of her life was an emptiness forged by fears of abandonment — the seeds having been planted by Mom.
Relationship between Gia and Linda is intriguing, if overdone, failing to explain Linda’s seemingly halfhearted commitment to being gay. But Gia’s chemical-induced fall is more than clear, with Jolie fully embracing her transformation from gorgeous wild-child to disease-ravaged junkie. It’s jarring stuff.
If “Gia” doesn’t necessarily tell us anything new about the concept of how fame can seduce, corrupt and destroy — or really all that much about the modeling business itself — it still carries an agonizing edge, delving into black areas of the human soul that TV rarely dares explore. The period soundtrack (the Pretenders, Billy Idol, David Bowie) adds an evocative spark.
Tech credits are uniformly superior.