Jennifer Jason Leigh, a girlish wisp with huge eyes, has emerged as one of the movies' most accomplished actresses on the strength of her fearless essays in depravity, which all go bravely against type. Her career credits include low-down prostitutes in Last Exit to Brooklyn and Miami Blues, a coke-addicted narc in Rush and a famously besotted writer in Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle.
In Ulu Grosbard's Georgia, Jason Leigh hits the skids again as Sadie Flood, the desperate, hard-drinking, drug-addled younger sister of a famous folk-rock singer, played by steady Mare Winningham. Sadie's problems go way back, but they're rooted in her own singing voice, a tuneless screech drenched in unmodulated pain--what Janis Joplin might have sounded like if she'd been deaf. But this woman-child doesn't get it. So paralyzed is she by the twin demons of hero worship and sibling rivalry--Georgia is always on her mind--that she can't help trying to measure up. While Georgia fills major concert halls with admiring fans, the wannabe Sadie can barely hear one hand clapping in the scummy bowling alleys and overdecorated banquet rooms where she bleats through her gigs.
What Sadie really wants, of course, is her big sister's approval. Instead, she gets motherly indulgence from a woman whose life is as buttoned-up and orderly as Sadie's is chaotic.
Wearing two pounds of mascara and ten of junk jewelry, Jason Leigh is once again astonishing: You can feel Sadie's vulnerability and self-deception right down in your boots, and when she descends into Seattle junkiedom, an ersatz Courtney Love, you can feel the life seeping out of her. This update on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? by way of A Star Is Born has some sublimely harrowing moments.
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But be forewarned. Director Grosbard (True Confessions, The Subject Was Roses) has Jennifer/Sadie sing (if that's the word) all or part of thirteen songs. Clearly, it took courage for the actress to purposely perform this badly; it requires an equal amount of forbearance for the audience to endure it.
Meanwhile, the dark screenplay was written by Barbara Turner, whose best known film credit is probably Petulia, back in 1968. That Turner also happens to be Jason Leigh's real-life mother raises questions, not least psychotherapeutic ones, we are unprepared to address here.
Look for sturdy support from Max Perlich (as the boy-groupie Sadie marries) and Ted Levine (the other serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs) as Georgia's road-weary husband.
Just don't go shopping for the soundtrack.