Watching Britney Spears act in Crossroads can seem like the ultimate in excitement. That is, if you're twelve years old, a girl and you don't get out much. Has a film rated PG-13 for sexual content ever delivered less on its promise? Randy males, ranging from hormone-charged teens to a Viagra-fueled Bob Dole, will have to save the drool for Pepsi commercials, belly-baring videos and tracks in which the twenty-year-old pop princess whispers, "I'm a slave for you." If you're not the target demographic, which Spears helpfully defines in the film's single — "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" — this movie is one long chick-flick slog.
Crossroads represents Spears' acting debut, but as far as I'm concerned, her record is clean. As Lucy, the sweet Georgia peach with an overprotective father (a wasted Dan Aykroyd) and a mother (a neutered Kim Cattrall) who deserted them, Spears runs a monotonous gamut from perky to pouty. To be fair, Spears has a natural screen presence — she doesn't make twitchy faces at the camera like Mariah Carey in the infamously awful Glitter. Then again, this mouse of a movie makes no demands on her.
Crossroads boasts a director, Tamra Davis, who once showed promise (Guncrazy) and a screenwriter, Shonda Rhimes, with a prime HBO credit (Introducing Dorothy Dandridge). But what's onscreen has all the passion of a balance sheet. No wonder. The powers behind Crossroads aren't out to do something creative; they're protecting an investment in a pitchwoman. Dirty up the supporting cast all you want, but keep Spears as squeaky-clean as Olivia Newton-John in Grease ("Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee/Lousy with virginity").
Here's the setup: Spears' Lucy won't have sex with her school lab partner (Justin Long) because she wants her first time to be special. When her chums Mimi (Taryn Manning) and Kit (Zoe Saldana) give in to the wrong guys, they end up betrayed, abused and, in Mimi's case, pregnant. There's a moral here, people. Lucy is such a good friend that she joins Mimi and Kit on a road trip to Los Angeles. She doesn't trust Mimi's pal Ben (Anson Mount), a hunky musician who is driving the girls in his '73 Buick convertible. Rumor has it that Ben is an ex-con, but it turns out his offenses are minor. The worst Ben does is get out of the car and kick dirt when he can't stand the girls' singalong to 'N Sync's "Bye Bye Bye" (a tribute to Spears' boy toy, Justin Timberlake). I felt his pain. When Lucy finally submits to gentle Ben, the camera captures a kiss, then chastely retreats. Julie Andrews generated more heat in The Sound of Music.
Lucy is punished for the tiniest infraction: She takes a drink and gets a hangover; she sings and gyrates to "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" at a karaoke contest, and Ben has to clock the lusty bastard who hits on her. Spears has been so idealized as an unblemished goddess that her role is virtually unactable. Spears doesn't invest herself in this role the way Mandy Moore does playing a good Christian girl in A Walk to Remember, a chick flick that has become a modest hit for having the courage of its unhip convictions. Crossroads is bereft of wit or purpose.
These are perilous times for songbirds onscreen. (The boys aren't doing much better — check out On the Line with 'N Sync's Lance Bass and Joey Fatone.) Madonna, a Spears icon, started on a high with Desperately Seeking Susan and then sunk into self-parody. Aaliyah made a promising debut in Romeo Must Die, but the R&B singer (who died in a plane crash last August) makes her final appearance fronting a cheesy vampire epic — Queen of the Damned — released on February 22nd. It's a dilemma: to cash in when you're hot (remember Spice World?) or build a career slowly by taking a small role in a strong movie (Macy Gray ignited her big scene in Training Day). Spears must decide if she's just a package or an actress capable of more than pandering. Is there a future for the "Oops" girl in film? Do we want to see this baby one more time? At the Crossroads screening I attended, derisive laughter greeted one of Spears' stilted line readings. "Aw, come on," a girl fan shouted, "she's trying." It's not enough.