There is just one reason to sit through the 90-minute "Hip Hopera: Carmen" on MTV tonight, and it isn't the so-so rapping, unconvincing storyline or acting reminiscent of high school plays.
The one bright spot in MTV's bold attempt to reinvent Georges Bizet's 1875 opera for the hip, modern masses, sadly, is Beyonce Knowles, the comely lead singer for R&B; group Destiny's Child.
And we're not talking about her singing.
It's a pity because MTV should be lauded for its endeavor to introduce its 12-to-34 demographic to opera through the cool format of a hip-hop musical, where actors break into rap instead of arias. And with stars like Knowles, Mekhi Phifer ("A Lesson Before Dying") and hip-hop artists Da Brat and Wyclef Jean in the flick, success shouldn't be a stretch.
Instead, the movie ends up being so sub-par that all viewers probably will remember of it is Knowles in a hot red dress with a slit racing up her thigh, or Knowles in a too-short tartan schoolgirl skirt with slits racing up her thighs. You get the point.
"Hip Hopera: Carmen" begins promisingly, with narrator Da Brat delivering a rap introduction in a segment that resembles a cool music video. It's when the movie starts looking less like a music video that the problems begin.
Knowles stars as Carmen Brown, a stunning young woman who lives in Philadelphia, dreams about becoming a movie star and doesn't appear to work but has gorgeous clothes and a great apartment nonetheless. Phifer is Sgt. Derrick Hill, an honest cop who works for a crooked supervisor, Lt. Miller (rapper Mos Def).
The three characters cross paths in a bar one night where Hill's fiancee Caela (Regan Gomez-Preston from WB's "The Parent 'Hood") is a waitress. Carmen strides into the bar in that red dress, men drool, their girlfriends get mad, and next thing you know, she and another woman are rolling around on the ground trying to claw each other's eyes out.
Unfortunately, the film goes downhill from there. Knowles' Carmen seduces the honest cop, much like her opera counterpart - who charms a soldier into deserting the Army for her and then dumps him for another man. Hill ends up going to prison for Carmen, but when he gets out, they run away to Los Angeles, where she ditches him for rich rap star Blaze (Casey Lee from "True Crime").
"Carmen" isn't entirely a lost cause. Phifer, who has done well in flicks like "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer" and Spike Lee's "Clockers," plays his part convincingly. And Snoop Dogg's pint-sized protege Lil' Bow Wow is absolutely adorable as a young perp who winds up in prison with Hill. The movie never explains why a 13-year-old would be put in the same cell as men twice his size.
The film also is amusing in its stabs at shameless self-promotion. Not only is Destiny's Child's latest hit "Survivor" piped in at one point, but MTV's show "Cribs" also is worked into the plot. And rap sequences that resemble the edgy rap-offs of the budding hip-hop genre in the early '80s will be a treat for fans of MTV's "The Lyricist Lounge Show."
While the lyrics are laughable and overdone in some segments ("I love you more than slaves loved the thought of being free"), they're also witty and in the know in others. ("Blaze got game but he's not Marbury," referring to New Jersey Nets point guard Stephon Marbury.) And Phifer and Lil' Bow Wow deliver a gritty prison rap that makes the soundtrack, which comes out next month, perhaps worth buying.
But the film's biggest flaw is unforgivable: The relationship between Carmen and Hill is so undeveloped, viewers will find it hard to believe they're in love, much less willing to sacrifice their lives to be together. Knowles' acting certainly doesn't help much - although she does shine in a scene where she's auditioning for a movie and she's pretending to be a bad actress. And no amount of skimpy clothing can make up for her shortcomings as a thespian.
A "Hip Hopera" is definitely a cool new concept to explore. Let's just hope that the next time MTV tries it, the network focuses more on developing the hip-hop part of it, even if it means less gratuitous titillation.
When: Tonight at 8
In brief: It's got game, but it's not Marbury.