'Sparkle' Review: The Second Most Embarrassing Thing to Happen to Whitney Houston This Year
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Sparkle Review: The Second Most Embarrassing Thing to Happen to Whitney Houston This Year

By Eric D. Snider | Film Reviews | August 17, 2012 | Comments ()


Sparkle is a remake of a 1976 film about a girl group breaking into the music business, but it's cobbled together so generically that it might as well be a remake of every other movie on that subject. Only two things distinguish it from, say, a straight-to-DVD Dreamgirls or Glitter sequel: it has an "American Idol" winner in the lead, and it has Whitney Houston in a supporting role as her drunk, washed-up, cautionary tale of a mother. But it's so dumbly on-the-nose that she actually uses the words "cautionary tale" to describe herself. This is the second most embarrassing thing to happen to Whitney Houston this year.

This sluggish melodrama, set in Detroit in 1968, has 2007 "Idol" winner Jordin Sparks as Sparkle Anderson, a shy 19-year-old songwriter whose Motown-y tunes are perfect vehicles for her fame-hungry older sister, whose name is Sister (Carmen Ejogo). (As far as I can determine from the information provided within the film, Sister and Sparkle are the girls' given names.) Sister went to New York to seek her fortune a while back but, in the words of a family friend, New York "spit her back out." Now she's at home with Sparkle, their other sister Dee (Tika Sumpter), and their church-going, God-fearing, utterly demolished mother, Emma (Houston).

Prodded by an up-and-coming talent manager named Stix (Derek Luke) who saw Sister sing at an open-mic night, Sister and her sisters form a group called Sister and Her Sisters. Dee has college plans and Sparkle fancies herself more of a songwriter and back-up singer than a star, but Sister is in it to win it. She ruthlessly pursues wealth and glamour, casually dumping her broke but earnest boyfriend (Omari Hardwick) for a flashy, rich entertainer named Satin (Mike Epps), who promptly gets her hooked on drugs and beats her up, as is customary.

All of this happens against the wishes of Emma, a former singer who knows firsthand how brutal the music industry can be and doesn't want any part of it for her daughters. She had three babies by different fathers and suffered untold bouts with alcoholism and whatnot, and Sister is only too eager to throw her poor parenting choices back in her face. When Sister claims she had to help raise Dee and Sparkle because Emma was unconscious in her own vomit, Emma's defense is that, sure, she's been drunk many times, "but you've never, ever seen me laying in my own vomit!" SO YOU TAKE THAT BACK, YOU LIAR!

Houston's presence in the film was always going to make us think of her real-life troubles, of course -- that was surely part of the motivation in casting her -- but her death six months ago changes the effect from "poignant" to "ghoulish." No longer are we viewing a woman who is bowed but unbroken, one who has been through the wringer but may yet emerge triumphant. Now we're watching a woman who lost. Her speaking voice is hoarse and quiet, though her musical number (clearly wedged into the film just to give her one) presents a singing voice that's nearly as powerful as ever.

Houston's acting is neither good nor bad enough to be worth mentioning -- but she's better than Jordin Sparks, who celebrates her thespian debut by mousily delivering dull lines in a meek voice. She's a terrific singer; she's just not an actress. And despite being the title character, she's seldom the movie's primary interest. In fact, the interminable middle section is devoted to Sister's overly familiar rise and fall, amusingly condensed and simplified by Mara Brock Akil's by-the-numbers screenplay. One moment Satin is suggesting cocaine to Sister, who is nervously reluctant; literally five seconds later, in the next scene, a coked-up Sister is stumbling into a rehearsal with powder on her nose. Things go downhill from there. Carmen Ejogo does her best not to seem like a Lifetime Original Movie character, but there's only so much she can do when she's required to explain her need for cocaine with the line "Sister can't fly on one wing."

Directed by Salim Akil (Jumping the Broom), who's married to the screenwriter, Sparkle has occasional moments of dramatic interest, including a dinner-table scene where Emma butts heads with Satin. But most of the film is meandering and murky, full of cliches, histrionics, and implausibilities. Nobody has much screen presence, and once Sister's tale is concluded and we get back to Sparkle, it's hard to guess when, if ever, the directionless story will end.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • stryker1121

    A bit cunty of you describing Houston's death as embarrassing, Eric. Was it that funny to you that you had to repeat the "joke" in the text? Questionable taste aside, it's not even a funny line.

  • valerie

    No offense, but drowing to death in a bathtub because you overdosed that hard during your bath is Embarassing. To herself and to her fans.

  • stryker1121

    It's still a mean thing to say, and even worse, it's not even a funny line. I'll be honest and say I've laughed at plenty of jokes that are in bad taste. Comedy Central had a roast of Pam Anderson years ago, and one of the presenters (Nick DiPaulo) told Anderson that as an actor, she had the "emotional range of Terri Schiavo." A hideous, incredibly cruel joke, but I laughed my ass off.

    So maybe I'm more "offended" by the lameness of Eric's quip than calling Whitney's death "embarrassing."

  • Johnnyboy

    Really? A joke about overdose-related death? This is really Dane Cook writing isn't it? Maybe you should go hang out with Michael Richards brilliantly waiting for the right moment to relaunch your career.

  • jj111

    Yea this movie sounds terrible.

    But really: "embarrassing?" Is that what we are calling death these days?

  • Sara_Tonin00

    When you have used enough cocaine that you are unable to functionally lay in a tub of water and therefore drown...that could be considered embarrassing to your legacy. Not really to you, because....you're dead and probably no longer care.

  • What are you saying? Jordin Sparks is still alive.

  • Majicou

    Maybe an article about movies released after a main actor has died is due?

  • REL


    I will end you! Leave me alone!

  • Sounds awful, but might be good trainwreck watching if I catch it on TV sometime.

  • this movies sounds so mind numbingly trite and painfully obvious that I couldn't even finish reading the review. I read all the way to "Sister and her Sisters" and my brain seized.

  • BWeaves

    I keep reading Satin as Satan, which I bet is intended.

    Sister just sounds like the sort of name a nurse puts on your birth certificate until your parents change it, (and yes I do know someone named "Female").

    I keep waiting for Twilight "Sparkle" jokes, but I can't think of any.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    I thought I was alone in the Satin/Satan thing, since I don't normally misread it.

    This is why placeholder names should always be some kind of absurdly awesome if ultimately impractical name, like "Queen Rika, Slayer of Brutes" or "Jane," so that if you accidentally get stuck with it, at least it's not bland.

  • The Other Agent Johnson

    Wait... the older daughter is named Sister? So when the mother had her first child, she named her sister? Wouldn't it make more sense to name the second child Sister? Am I overthinking this?

    Also: that fifth paragraph about Houston is a goddamn heartbreaker.

  • The Pink Hulk

    Sister's actual name is Tammy. It's said a number of times during the film. And it's on the Wiki page. The reviewer was clearly too busy thinking up tasteless Whitney Houston jokes to notice.

  • The Other Agent Johnson

    Other than the "second most embarrassing" bit (which, while true, is weak, I'll concede), where are these supposed tasteless jokes?

    No, I'm serious. Please point them out to me, because if they're there, I missed them.

  • BWeaves

    I was overthinking this, too. Then I realized she named the second daughter Sparkle and the third daughter Dee. It's a bit like naming your 3 children Female, Honey Boo Boo and Fourth. I think drugs and/or drinking was involved.

    Then again, maybe she was thinking ahead to when Sister would be a teenager, and they could go out drinking together and Mom would call her Sister, and the dudes would think they were sisters, and. . . nevermind . . . I just grossed myself out.

  • Well, that's implausible. No one would name their kids, "Female, Honey boo Boo, and Fourth". "Female, Honey Boo Boo, and Third", okay, not Fourth. That would be dumb.

    This movie suffers from the same subplot problem as Eragon, where you have a secondary character that is more interesting and receives more development than the actual titular protagonist.

  • e jerry powell

    Mary Alice may not have been much of a singer, but at least she could act her ass off. Clearly Jordin Sparks is no Irene Cara, either.

    What gets me most is that they're already prepping this pile of turds for a Broadway run. Is there no shame left in the world of musical theater?

  • hapl0
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