“Jem and the Holograms” brings the ’80s cartoon about an all-girl rock band into the real world. Sort of. That is to say, it’s live-action, and it thinks it’s presenting a real-world account of a band’s rise to fame, but it’s actually hilariously divorced from reality. (This is the only hilarious thing about it.)
Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples) is a bland teen with a nice singing voice who lives with her sister, Kimber (Stefanie Scott), their Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald), and Bailey’s two foster daughters, Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko). The four teens half-heartedly want to be a band, but Jerrica is shy, or self-conscious, or something. To be honest, I was never clear on what Jerrica’s deal was.
Then Kimber posts an unremarkable video of Jerrica, calling herself Jem, playing the guitar and singing a song on YouTube, and the next morning THE WHOLE WORLD wants to know who Jem is. Music exec Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis) floods her inbox with requests for a meeting. Before you know it (it may actually be the next day), Jerrica and the girls are in L.A., getting makeovers and being turned into rock stars. All on the basis of one brief video not unlike 10,000 other videos uploaded to YouTube that day. They become world famous just as quickly, and on the basis of even less artistic effort.
(Side note: Jerrica’s kitschy earrings, a gift from her father, are deemed unsuitable for her new look, so Erica Raymond locks them in a safe in her office — solely so they’ll be inaccessible later in the movie, when the plot requires Jerrica to have them. That’s the kind of writing we’re dealing with.)
Erica has vague plans to cheat the band somehow (she’s fixated on making Jerrica go solo), coinciding with Aunt Bailey’s vague money problems that may cause her to lose her house. Meanwhile, Erica assigns her hunky teenage son, Rio (Ryan Guzman), to keep an eye on the girls, then is angry and surprised when he spends a lot of time with them. The obligatory scene of Jerrica stopping by Rio’s hotel room when he’s just stepped out of the shower is not omitted.
Also, Jerrica and Kimber’s dead father (their mother is never mentioned) left behind a little robot that has been inactive for 10 years but starts coming to life in L.A. It provides clues that the girls have to follow in order to fully activate it. Once activated, it, um, shows some holograms. Nothing essential. We are left to conclude that the sequel (which the film VERY MUCH wants to set up) will feature the hologram robot in a more useful capacity.
The director is John M. Chu, who made a couple of the “Step Up” dance movies, the Justin Bieber concert films, and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” (which, like “Jem and the Holograms,” is based on a 1980s Hasbro toy cartoon). In other words, his entire career has been leading up to this. He aims for authenticity, treating it like a serious a-star-is-born story, and the way he uses technology in the girls’ lives rings true, even if it all happens implausibly fast.
But Ryan Landels’ drab, simple-minded screenplay, with no grasp of how the world works, undercuts those efforts. The film keeps telling us that Jem and the band are inspiring to girls, but it fails to show how or why this would be. (It also keeps insisting the fans don’t know who Jem really is, even though she’s just Jerrica with eye makeup and a wig.) The paper-thin characters and their impossible rise to fame are pure fantasy — tedious, often dour fantasy, at that — and totally at odds with Chu’s naturalistic style. I never saw the cartoon this is based on, but surely it was at least FUN, right?
C- (1 hr., 58 min.; )