Jem and the Holograms

Aubrey Peeples (with "Aladdin Sane" face paint) tries to overcome the evil managerUniversal Pictures

‘Jem and the Holograms’
John M. Chu
Stars: Aubrey Peeples, Juliette Lewis
Rating: PG
2 (out of 5) Globes

A straight-faced “Josie and the Pussycats,” but with a robot, the “Jem and the Holograms” movie is an earnest melodrama, and also an origin story, but also a sometime sci-fi movie, plus a YA movie, as well as a movie for the Miley/Taylor/Selena Gomez generation, and even occasionally an ad-lib-heavy comedy, because those are popular too. It’s a movie about a crisis of identity: shy, struggling middle class teen Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples) can only sing through her titular invented persona, which includes pink hair and a hot red “Aladdin Sane” streak across her face. But it’s also a movie with a crisis of identity. There’s so much synergy that birthed “Jem” that it tries everything — and, heck, even the bleep-blooping droid is actually named “Synergy.”

For awhile things seems simple, even dull. Jerrica and sibs are just aspiring singers living with their struggling private business owner mom, played by a semi-recognizable Molly Ringwald (who now looks like a knock-off Sarah Paulson). Jerrica suddenly goes viral, though only after a private video of her singing a mopey song in Jem get-up is stolen by her sisters and uploaded to YouTube without her knowing. (Here’s to creepy origins!) All four find themselves signing up with powerful and blatantly evil label owner Erica Raymond (Eric on the show), played with copious, awe-inspiring bitchiness by Juliette Lewis, who isn’t above telling one of the girls that her outfit “reminds me of people who dress up their animals.”

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For awhile you might think an old Hasbro toon — created as the femme version of “G.I. Joe”; naturally, director Jon M. Chu also helmed “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” which, being a movie for boys, had 15 times the budget — has been turned into a standard, painfully ordinary tale of corruption in the music biz. Then, about 40 minutes in, comes the robot. Built by Jerrica’s dead inventor dad, and resembling not just a kid-friendly George Lucas invention but specifically “The Force Awakens”’ BB-8, Synergy exists in part because the writers belatedly remembered the show had a robot (originally a wall-sized computer), and in part to spice up the kind of narrative that was being made fun of all the way back in 1970’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” Sometimes he seems to have been straight-up spliced into tepid scenes as goofy cutaways, much the way Bob Guccione inserted extra, random hardcore footage into “Caligula” when he thought Tinto Brass’ initial cut wasn’t appropriately Caligulian.

A film crammed with so many genres and tones and styles, “Jem” works in fits and bits. Some of the comedy is funny, deployed by random ringers and especially by Lewis, whose deadpanned advice about how to work the red carpet includes “to look like you’re having fun without having fun.” The serious stuff works best, mostly because of Peeples, who was clearly chosen both for her vague Kristen Stewart looks and for her ability to melt with less self-consciousness. She’s given a token YA boy toy (“The Boy Next Door”’s Ryan Guzman), who gets a token YA “gonna take my shirt off” scene, but she brings touching sincerity to what could be stock scenes where she mourns for her departed dad.

These stretches are handled sensitively, while the requisite scene where the band breaks up — for what appears to be like 90 minutes — is lit like an Oliver Stone movie, with lots of harsh back light and long lenses. Its intensity is 180 degrees from a joke scene where a male security guard who likes girl pop tries to get Jem’s autograph on his wrist. It’s a lot of different movies, including often a bland-looking one that spends too much time in the boring real world, not the fantastical one of the dreamy and often transcendent show, an episode of which had more songs than the film. These are all problems that can be fixed in the sequel, for this is also, on top of everything else, in its final moments a Marvel movie with a bumper touting characters and stuff that would baffle everyone but hardcore fans.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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