Grade: D-

The title of Mariah Carey’s debut movie may be “Glitter,” but the result is certainly not gold. However much one might sympathize with the singer’s much-publicized medical troubles, a viewing of the picture makes it evident that as a screen presence she’s a washout. Her kewpie-doll face, filmed in insistent closeups, is blank and vacuous, and things are hardly enhanced by a succession of costumes that are among the most unflattering in recent memory (the outfit she wears as a backup singer early on is hilariously ugly: Joseph G. Aulisi is the designer responsible). And, unhappily, Carey just can’t act. She pouts from time to time, smiles vacantly in a bad impression of either shyness or wonder, and even attempts to weep on occasion, but despite these efforts, she never manages to suggest a single authentic feeling. One might say that her performance runs the gamut of emotion from A to B, without ever quite making it to B. So it’s easy to understand why a derisive chuckle arises from the audience when, at a glitzy party late in the story, a bit player, admiring Billie Frank, the pop phenom Carey’s playing, is heard to remark, “She’d be great in the movies.” Uh-huh.

Although Carey’s on screen pretty much without a break, however, one shouldn’t single her out as the sole cause of the movie’s awfulness. The greatest actress in the world wouldn’t have been able to salvage such a hopeless chain of cliches–half wish-fulfillment fantasy and half weepy soap opera, it’s that old chestnut about the sweet, talented youngster (Isabel Gomes) who’s turned over to the state by her loving but dissipated torch-singer mom (Valerie Pettiford), only to grow into a young woman so gorgeous and prodigiously talented that it takes any man in her vicinity but a single glance or listen to identify her as a potential superstar. (Talk about a vanity project.) It seems a matter of moments before she’s adopted by one of New York City’s premier club DJs, a lovable lug named Dice (Max Beesley), and magically transformed from a mousy backup singer into a platinum-record-selling, Madison Square Garden-packing megadiva. But all is not roses and cream. Not only does Billie pine for her long-absent mother, but as her fame grows, Dice becomes increasingly jealous, tormented by the realization that his creation’s career has outstripped his. One doesn’t want to spoil the outcome for a potential viewer who’s never seen a movie before, but when Billie appears teary-eyed at the sold-out concert that closes the flick, she hushes the crowd and says, “Hello, this is Mrs. Norman Maine.” Oops. Sorry, wrong movie. But she might as well have done; if you’re going to rip off “A Star is Born” one more time, you might as well be up-front about it.

Within this hackneyed context, writer Kate Lanier and director Vondie Curtis Hall manage to provide special nuggets of unintended merriment. For example, there’s the cat that young Billie clutches as she departs her mother at the close of the opening credits: the animal then vanishes entirely, only to suddenly reappear (to be trundled off in her arms yet again) when Billie leaves Dice some two decades later. (And it doesn’t seem to have aged a minute.) There’s the depiction of the New York club scene in the 1980s, which features lots of scantily-clad gyrating guys and girls, but in which any hint of drug usage is conspicuously omitted, presumably to insure a PG-13 rating. There’s the performance of Beesley, a Brit who unsuccessfully attempts a thick New York accent and a gruff tough-boy attitude but comes off sounding (and looking, in his black leather duds) like a bargain-basement version of the young Kevin Bacon. There’s Da Brat and Tia Texada as the grown-up versions of two girls Billie bonds with in the orphanage who grow up to become her best buds, occasional roommates and (at first) back-up singers: they’re portrayed as lovably loopy Lucille Ball types, and for some bizarre reason the focus occasionally shifts to their goofy antics. And there’s a hokey epilogue in which Billie’s mother abruptly reappears for a tearful reunion (no explanation for why she’s absented herself all these years).

One can also mention the director’s habit of breaking up the narrative with inserts of the New York streets and skyline, speeded up and streaked in a vain effort to rouse the plot from its sudsy doldrums. Ordinarily this cheap device would be objectionable, but in this case it at least gets us through the running-time faster than would otherwise be the case. It also has the beneficial effect of obscuring most shots of the World Trade Center towers. But at about 45 minutes in, they appear briefly in the background as the girls are going shopping; and then at about the 80-minute point, there’s a skyline shot in which they’re prominently featured. Anyone going to see “Glitter” for some slight relief from present real-world troubles will find himself brought immediately back to earth by these glimpses of structures that no longer exist. The result, though, is oddly salutary: though it might seem tasteless of the makers not to have snipped the shots even from a period-piece, they remind us that suffering through a very bad movie is just a minor inconvenience compared to the true disaster we’re all enduring. “Whatever it is, it could be worse,” one character tells Dice at a particularly low point in the relationship he has with Billie. Under other circumstances one might wryly observe that the movie itself couldn’t be much worse. But now the line rather hits home; it makes you realize that in the greater scheme of things, watching even a movie as worthless as “Glitter” is just a passing annoyance in the midst of an enormous tragedy.