Thursday, March 3, 2016

Glamour And Glitter, Fashion And Fame

Year: 2015
Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Aubrey Peeples, Stefanie Scott, Juliette Lewis
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

As is so often necessary in this modern Hollywood epoch of renewing and rebooting old properties, I must lead with a disclaimer. I have never seen the popular 80’s cartoon series Jem, from which the film Jem and the Holograms is loosely adapted. From what I’ve heard, hardcore fans of the show would have been better off pretending they’ve never seen it either if they wanted to avoid a deadly clot of frustration. Although, all things considered, the statistical likelihood that anybody reading this has actually watched the film is extremely low.

You see, Jem and the Holograms is now the record holder for worst wide release opening weekend of 2015, the fourth worst of all time (it’s only behind Delgo, The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, and the genuinely embarrassing Saw 10th anniversary re-release). It made back approximately half its production budget and was pulled from cinemas after just two mortifying weeks. And even if you’re someone who wanted to see it (a demographic of pretty much just me), you couldn’t. It took me five different Redbox excursions to actually find the disc, and the exuberantly misinformed idea to price the retail DVD at $20+ could be the subject of the next Michael Lewis book. This kind of high profile disaster is music to my bad movie-loving ears, so of course I had to give it a look. Here’s my field report.

After procuring a pink wig and covering my natural scent by rolling in a pile of glitter, the Holograms are finally beginning to accept me as one of their own.

In Jem and the Holograms, Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples) is your average teen girl from the “least likely” place ever: The Valley. After her father passed away, she and her sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) moved in with their Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald for some reason) and became a part of her Polly Pocket Dream house family. Bailey owns a costume shop (because nobody in this universe is, like, a dentist or something), and her foster daughters Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) are a fashionista and a gearhead respectively. Nobody seems to be interested in Netflix or videogames or have homework to do.

Yadda yadda yadda, Molly Ringwald is about to get evicted because the costume shop business ain’t what it used to be. But! After Jerrica puts on a wig and makeup and performs a song as Jem, which gets uploaded to YouTube, she becomes a viral sensation. Because if movies are to be believed, literally anything uploaded to the Internet will spread like wildfire, something this blog provides evidence against. She is being courted by record executive Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), and the money she’s offering could pay their bills! Jem insists that her sisters come along to be her band, and thus begins a month-long rocket to superstardom. The buzz from the original acoustic video is so huge that they already have a national fanbase based on that one song. Naturally, nothing they play is ever acoustic ever again.

But! Erica wants Jem to be a solo artist for some ill-defined reason. Will this cause a rift between her and her sisters? Will her secret Jem identity consume her soul? Will she ever get to make out with Erica’s super hot son Rio (Ryan Guzman), with whom she has so little chemistry that their atoms seem to actively repel one another? Also! Her dead dad left behind a robot called Synergy, which is leading her on an epic musical scavenger hunt across LA to learn about herself and her values or some crap.

Yeah, that sci-fi element sure worked its way into the story organically. What a triumph of naturalistic storytelling!

The truly weird thing about Jem and the Holograms is that it’s still manifestly a Blumhouse picture. Along with cherry-picking the rhythm of Whiplash and the teen savvy of Unfriended, with some occasional dips into the scavenged source material of Paranormal Activity, it also features some prominent new cast members from the Blumhouse stable: The Boy Next Door’s Ryan Guzman and Insidious: Chapter 3’s Stefanie Scott and Hayley Kiyoko. Plus, the entire film – a relatively massive budget for them – takes place on about six sets, spending at least an entire half hour in just a single suburban house. It’s an extremely odd effect, like watching a Disney Channel Original Movie being strangled before your eyes.

The whole film exists in this perpetual limbo, trapped between the extravagant glitzy lunacy it strives for and the low key realism it can afford. Normally I would watch a movie with an over-the-top teen angst girlgroup boilerplate plot that gets frequently derailed by an inexplicable subplot and abruptly swerves into a heist movie for a couple scenes in the third act and call it a fever dream masterpiece. However, the camp quality is cut off at the knees by the too-serious production, at least until the robot hums to life and overloads the system, sending the movie into its bizarre plot seizures.

You see, no matter how tempered the actual content frequently finds itself, the way it is presented is patently deranged. A solid years worth of story is compressed into less than a month, so any time a character mentions “that day by the pier” (yesterday) or “all this time” (one week), it’s an inexhaustible well of unintentional comedy. Drama arises offscreen and gets resolved instantly, sometimes within seconds, plot device explode into the frame without even considering being set up, and shots from the perspective of a security camera constantly undermine every last ounce of tension.

Also, dad apparently forgot that Kimber existed when setting up his Jigsaw-esque scavenger hunt.

Do you see the bind I find myself in? Jem is mostly not a good movie. Aubrey Peeples is a kind of non-presence, delivering a voiceover narration as devoid of nuance or emotion as a concrete brick, and the other girls are spunky but only vaguely etched out (and Aurora Perrineau might as well be an extra for all the focus she’s given), so there’s really nothing concrete in the A-plot to grab onto. However, a much livelier piece of bubblegum trash is constantly oozing out around the edges.

This movie is jam-packed (or should I say Jem-packed? No. I shouldn’t.) with microscopic appearances from actors I really adore (including Party Down’s Ryan Hansen, looking like an actual adult – a handsome adult), hilariously vacant and catchy pop music masquerading as True Art with a Message, and messily overstaged musical performances that only perpendicularly intersect with reality. And did I mention there’s a dress-up montage with people nodding or shaking their head to outfits, presented completely unironically? All while they’re supposed to be at a location across LA in 20 minutes? It’s magical. 

All this is ruled over by Juliette Lewis vamping her bones out of their sockets. She acts like she’s actually in the Jem cartoon, sashaying through every set with the hyperbolic malice of an evil queen, even before she is revealed in any way to be an antagonist. Shes utterly captivating any second she’s onscreen, and if every element of the film were keyed up to her level, Jem would be an instant cult classic.

As it stands, Jem and the Holograms is a generic, vaguely manic shell of a pop musical, scraped clean of meaning. Juliette Lewis and a shirtless Ryan Guzman edge it just enough over the line to recommend it, but it’s a movie you catch on TV, not one that you own. However, it must be said that it’s certainly not worse than most of the crap that gets foisted on the viewing audience on a weekly basis. Hell, it’s a whole lot better than Sinister 2. It didn’t deserve its box office whipping, but hopefully its martyrdom will help it find the right home on DVD. As soon as it ends up in dollar bins. That home is not with me, but it so could have been with just one or two adjustments.

TL;DR: Jem and the Holograms isn't the campy thrill ride it could have been, but it's fun enough in its ludicrous messiness.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1386

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