Pity poor Britney Spears. She’s so lucky; she’s a star, but if there’s nothing missing in her life, then why are tears almost certain to come to her tonight? The reviews for her film starring debut, “Crossroads,” are guaranteed to be scathing. …and I’d say unfairly so, at least as far as her acting is concerned. Being the emblematic figure of the teen pop music boom makes her an easy target, and in terms of technique, of course she’s no Kirsten Dunst/Sarah Michelle Gellar/Julia Stiles/(insert your favorite young actress here). But Spears is fairly confident, comfortable, and natural, highlighting the fact that she’s hardly a newcomer to acting; after all, she is a graduate of the revival of “The Mickey Mouse Club,” which is essentially sketch comedy on training wheels. (Whether or not it was good sketch comedy is, of course, a whole other matter entirely.)
Now where Spears does deserve blame is for the film’s idea, for which she has not so wisely taken credit for in interviews. “Crossroads,” directed by Tamra Davis and scripted by Shonda Rhimes, is teen girl fare that is largely average but not without its slap-your-head-godawful moments (more on those later). Given how much clout she has in the business, it’s dismaying that the film Spears chose to make something so formulaic and dull. Three longtime acquaintances–brainy, musically talented Lucy (Spears, playing a Spears clone); pregnant, rebellious Mimi (Taryn Manning, a Robin Tunney clone); and sassy, rich Kit (Zoë Saldana, the cast’s one original)–who have drifted apart over the years rediscover their lost friendship while on a Georgia-to-California road trip with a mysterious dreamboat named Ben (Anson Mount, a Wes Bentley clone). Within this formula lies more formula, in the girls’ individual plot threads: Lucy wants to find the mother (Kim Cattrall, barely there) that abandoned her and her father (Dan Aykroyd, ditto) many years ago; Mimi wants to escape her humdrum small town existence; Kit wants to visit the fiancé she hasn’t seen since he went off to college (no prizes for correctly guessing what he’s been up to).
To her credit, Spears has chosen a project which allows her to stretch a little without straining herself. “Crossroads” isn’t a complete star vehicle, with ample time and attention afforded to Saldana and Manning; and the role of Lucy has been as custom fit for Spears as the skimpy bra and panties she sports in a couple of scenes (yes, it’s true–buy your tickets now). Both of these choices end up backfiring. While Spears, as mentioned, does a perfectly adequate acting job (her big crying scene is surprisingly competent), she’s ultimately upstaged by her two co-stars. Manning does the brunt of the film’s emotional heavy lifting, and she does so with subtle ease; her showcase moments are quietly, gently affecting. Saldana, who stole the show in the blah ballet melodrama “Center Stage,” commits a similar crime of screen thievery here; she’s amusingly bitchy yet convincingly vulnerable. So it’s that much more of a shame that Manning and Saldana’s individual storylines eventually converge in such a contrived, “Dawson’s Creek”/”90210” manner.
At first, that the Lucy role was made for Spears seems a blessing, and the film’s gratuitous singalong scenes have an initial cuteness (surprisingly, she does a fair amount of singing live on camera, which is more than can be said for the recent screen efforts of Mandy and Mariah). But as the film progresses, the lines between Britney and Lucy get blurred to a distracting degree. To have Lucy and her friends belt out “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” (one of the tracks on Spears’ latest album) in a playful karaoke contest scene is one thing; quite another is when the heartfelt poem Lucy writes hilariously turns out to be none other than the lyrics to Spears’ latest single, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”–which she then performs at a contest to win a deal with a major recording label (don’t ask–not that you’d want to). Suddenly and shamelessly, the film morphs into the BRITNEY! infomercial that it had heretofore managed to avoid becoming.
Despite such a downward turn toward the cheesy and blatantly commercial, “Crossroads” is fairly innocuous, due in large part it has no illusions about what it is–unlike, say, a certain other vehicle for a teen pop star currently stinking up cinemas, which is pretentious with a capital P-R-E-T-E-N-T-I-O-U-S. Spears, Davis, and company are well aware that they’re making nothing more than the cinematic equivalent of Spears’ glossy bubble gum pop–but that’s exactly the problem.