There's a fundamental problem with "Little Voice." The emotional wollop of the story, about a shy girl who only comes into her own when she's doing eerily spot-on impressions of Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Bassey, depends on the audience's amazement at watching this flighty slip of a thing belt out jazz standards with unsettling gusto.
The actress Jane Horrocks, who originated the role on stage, does her own singing in "Little Voice," Mark Herman's filmed adaptation of the hit London play "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice."
But inexplicably, her singing is dubbed, giving the regrettable impression that she's lip-synching what should be the movie's most electrifying moments. With the medium muddling its message, "Little Voice" rises and falters, its finest sequences relegated to the margins.
Still, those margins are admittedly terrific. As Mari, a blowsy booze-hound who lives in a tatty apartment in Northern England with her reclusive daughter Little Voice (Horrocks), Brenda Blethyn delivers not so much a performance as a protracted exhalation of engaging gibberish.
Mari is constantly nattering on, whether it's to the unhearing L.V. or a neighbor or the telly or no one at all, only interrupting her monologue for a quick nip down to the pub. There, she prowls for male companionship, and imagine her surprise when she finds it -- in the form of small-fry talent manager Ray Say (Michael Caine), who seduces Mari with drives in his car and promises of a glam life.
One evening, Ray hears Little Voice singing along with the vintage records that belonged to her late father, and he immediately senses that his main chance has just come within reach.
Say's manipulation of L.V. is one of the best scenes of "Little Voice," and Caine's portrayal of one of show biz's casualties is among his most heartbreaking turns. He's an uncommonly forceful wash-up, and his scenes with Blethyn lurch and rattle with kicky fun. But without the ballast of L.V.'s performance, "Little Voice" loses its chops.
The sight and sound of Horrocks -- whom fans of the television show "Absolutely Fabulous" will recognize as the dotty secretary -- should be a shock, and it must have been mind-blowing in the live theater. Instead it comes off like sophisticated karaoke.
There's a lot of interesting business going on around "Little Voice," but the center does not hold.
Starring Jane Horrocks, Brenda Blethyn, Michael Caine, Ewan McGregor
Directed by Mark Herman
Released by Miramax Films
Rated R (language and brief nudity)
Running time: 96 minutes
Sun score: * * 1/2
Pub Date: 2/05/99