Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Watching the astonishingly inept "Dreamgirls" wannabe "Sparkle," you wonder how the cast kept a straight face, addressing one another as "Sparkle" and "Sister" and "Stix" and "Satin." (From somewhere I heard the voice of Pat Sajak saying, "There are five S's in the puzzle.")

The "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks stars - sort of - as an aspiring singer and songwriter who, with her med school-bound sister Dolores, sings backup for her sister Sister in Detroit in the late 60s. In reality, Sister (Carmen Ejogo) has at least as much screen time, as does the late Whitney Houston, as the girls' mother, Emma, who herself once dreamt of a singing career but now devotes herself to priggish piety. Poor Whitney. Even in her condition, the filmmakers kept dragging her out in scene after scene, like a reluctant racehorse being pulled once again to the starting gate. And the lines they gave her! ("Never once was I laying in my own vomit!") It's a performance campy enough to evoke memories of Faye Dunaway in "Mommie Dearest."

None of the characters, including Sparkle, is fleshed out any more than necessary to serve its function in the plot. There's the manager-boyfriend whose ethics boil down to "It's just business"; the popular comedian-boyfriend who beats Sister and gets her addicted to cocaine; and of course Emma, whose role is to throw water on Sparkle's dreams until she shows up at the final concert to cheer her on. (The songs - wordy, dissonant, at times almost atonal - vanish from memory faster than skywriting.)

"Sparkle's" sensibility is about 40 years out of time, though the screenwriters pepper the cringe-inducing dialogue with 21st-century anachronisms. It's a message movie, and the messages are as trite as they come: Believe in yourself. Follow your dreams. Don't do drugs. Director Salim Akil has no concept of how to frame or shoot a scene; I had to laugh at a couple of the domestic violence sequences, filmed in slow motion like a bad 70s blaxploitation picture.

It's possible, I think, for a group of friends to enjoy "Sparkle," talking back to the screen MST3K-style, as my sister and I did at the Justine Bateman vehicle "Satisfaction." Although objectively it's as epic a fail as "Cosmopolis," I'd much rather sit through "Sparkle." It's closer to that oft-cited quality of being "so bad it's fun" that only last year's "Love Crime" actually achieved in recent memory. After 116 minutes, though, I still have no idea how old Jordin Sparks is or the true color of her skin.

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