Is she black? Is she white? We don't know. So says a European video director in Glitter, the new Mariah Carey movie. That line got the biggest laugh in the largely black and Latino audience with whom I watched the film, because it's one of the few moments when the star is addressed irreverently. The video director is supposed to come off like a jerk, but he's really just saying what many people--black, white, whatever--used to wonder about Carey themselves, back in the days when people were supposed to be clearly defined.
It doesn't matter anymore whether Carey is white or black--what matters is that she's so wack. I mean, here's a singer who was born with an amazing voice and innate soulfulness--which she habitually mangles in an attempt to appeal to all people at all times. It's creepy. And then it's boring.
But how's the movie? Or, more to the point: Is it a satisfying escape from Everything? Not so much. All the interstitial shots are of New York skyscrapers from a bird's-eye view, often looking straight down. (Can you say whoops?) Then there are a couple of prominent shots of the World Trade Center that pull you out of the picture faster than a fire alarm. So much for escapism. But in any context, Glitter would be hard-pressed to compete with my new Harry Potter book and a good bottle of cheap whiskey. To be effective, escapism must be intelligent and emotionally plausible. That's the rub.
But Glitter is so self-consciously a diva vehicle that it doesn't even feel like a movie. Indeed, it's a commercial: a Behind the Music substitute in which egomania, record-mogul husbands, questionable appendages, chemical issues, body-image problems, emotional breakdowns, and all the other rumors of the star's actual humanity evaporate. Instead we get a patchwork of mythologies taken from other people's life stories and movies.
Carey's character, Billie, is a motherless young woman working as a dancer in a gay New York disco in the early Eighties. She gets noticed when her DJ/producer/boyfriend Dice (Max Beesley) records her single and starts playing it in the clubs. (Hey, at least she ditched the crucifix and all those black rubber bracelets!) Unfortunately, Dice turns out to be kind of shady, violent, controlling, and jealous. Oh, yeah, by the way: Glitter's screenwriter Kate Lanier also wrote the Tina Turner biopic What's Love Got to Do With It. Billie must have watched that one, because she bails on Dice without so much as a smudge to her mascara. She's so together, in fact, you assume she must be buddies with Alex from Flashdance. In every situation, Billie makes the right choice, standing up for herself and her boobs. (Or maybe her boobs are standing up for her?) Ironically, as "bad" people try to exploit her (like the video director who puts her in a bikini), we get to see miles of Mariah. Then, after sufficient skin is seen, Billie storms off, refusing to be compromised. It's really a win-win situation for everyone--except maybe Mariah Carey.
For a lead actor, Carey talks very little: Mostly, she tries to smile with her mouth closed and look really young and innocent and skinny. But we're not watching someone act; we're watching someone try not to fuck up. Like Carey's music, Glitter is an elaborate attempt to camouflage the real, fleshy, messy human being beneath a sheen of robotic perfection. In fact, the only scenes where Carey is remotely alive to the touch are when she cries at the end, and one or two diva tantrums. Suddenly, she's swearing and talking fast--and in a huskier tenor than before. Whoa! you think. The bitch is back. And then she's gone. Fooled you again, sucker.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.