Please Note: The images used here are promotional stills and are not taken from the Blu-ray edition under review.
Considered solely as a career-launching vehicle, one can understand the appeal of Michael Cristofer's 1998 made-for-HBO movie, Gia, a biopic recounting the tragic life and untimely death of Gia Carangi, America's first "supermodel," who died of AIDS in 1986, when she was only in her mid-twenties. This (anti)heroine is just the kind of complicated, emotionally paradoxical character that any aspiring actor might want to dig their teeth into--there's even a death, with all the emotional and physical challenges that poses for an ambitious thespian. That's what the then barely-known Angelina Jolie did, and her performance won her a Golden Globe and launched her career. But the film itself is a dud--one of those flimsy, mediocre things that can sometimes surround a good performance it's not close to being worthy of, like a valuable gemstone wrapped up and presented in residue-stained tinfoil.
Gia ran just before HBO revolutionized TV with their high-quality, artistically unparalleled original series (The Sopranos debuted the following year), and what it looks like now, in 20/20, 2011 hindsight, is a trashy network movie whose only distinction is its ability to intersperse profanity and cheesy Cinemax-style softcore throughout its temporally, emotionally, and psychologically over-obvious connect-the-dots narrative. During Gia's childhood (young Gia is played by Mila Kunis, later of Black Swan fame), she is intermittently lavished with praise and attention by her inconsistent, conditionally-loving mother for being the only girl of the family, and an exceptionally pretty one at that. Gia is traumatized by her parents' bad marriage; her father is abusive, her mother a dissatisfied abandoner. Cut to years later, when teenaged Gia (now Jolie), her mother remarried and living in a posh suburb, is working at her dad's diner in a crumbling section of Philadelphia, where she turns the customers' heads with her striking, proto-punk presence. On a trip to nearby New York with her sort-of boyfriend, she is discovered by a half-lecherous, half-legit duo of scouts/vultures who want to take her picture. Subsequently, portfolio in hand, she shoves her way to the top of the ladder by brandishing a knife in the reception area of model agent Willie Cooper's (Faye Dunaway, The Yards) offices, making an impressive enough splash to gain her entry and start her off on a modeling career that will capitalize on just the tough, dark contrast to the Cheryl Tiegs of the world that her packing a knife might suggest. Willie takes Gia under her wing and becomes an insufficient version of the mother (Mercedes Ruehl, Entourage) whose absence and unavailability seems to be the underlying cause of Gia's insatiable appetites: for love, attention, and--a seeming inevitability in the surface-driven, high-tension world of modeling--drugs, which, when she finally succumbs to the hard stuff, kill her when she contracts HIV from an infected needle and develops AIDS at a time when the disease was barely understood and life-prolonging medications were years away.
There is a story with some potential here, one about an unloved outsider who forces her way into a world that thinks it's too good for her, which she discovers too late is incapable of fulfilling her in any deep or lasting way. But the halfhearted, fifth-rate-Citizen Kane attempt at a flashback, multiple-POV structure cannot disguise the by-the-numbers timeline, with each event hit with obligatory, mechanical dutifulness, of the script by Cristofer and novelist Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City). Nor can Jolie's performance compensate for Cristofer's bland direction and the cheesy music (by, surprisingly, Spike Lee's regular composer Terence Blanchard, who usually does much better than this) and near-parodically overdone jump-cut, repetitive editing that reduce far too much of the film to nothing but slick, disconnected MTV nothingness.
This is particularly unfortunate when it comes to the depiction of Gia's one shot at something real to hold the center as she free-falls through the carnivalesque world of photo shoots and discos--her relationship with a makeup artist and the love of her life, Linda (Elizabeth Mitchell), which she eventually discards in favor of the drugs. There are some rather good scenes between Jolie and Mitchell that hint at the possibility of a much better, deeper movie, one probably told from Linda's point of view, that would allow us to feel the impact, the loss represented by Gia's troubled life and premature death. In the clumsy and exploitative hands of Gia's makers, however, the relationship is mainly an excuse for Jolie's extended nudity in a prolonged photo shoot/seduction scene whose silliness has to be seen to be believed, and the relationship as represented by the film mostly staggers between salacious "Girls Gone Wild" and maudlin movie-of-the-week territories.
The only thing that makes Gia more worthy of your attention than most other straight-to-DVD, low-budget dramas with seedy tales to tell and lots of gratuitous girl-on-girl action really is the opportunity to see, in Jolie's performance, the initial flourishing of an obviously considerable talent (whatever you might make of the mixed uses she has put it to over the ensuing years). For those of us who appreciate Jolie as an actor, the best possible purpose this movie can serve is to remind us that maybe it has been a while since we've re-watched Girl, Interrupted--another early example of her skill and star power that, whatever its flaws, has a craft and dignity to it that put Gia to shame. If movie history is kind to Jolie, that captivating supporting role in a well-made film will be remembered in lieu of her good but wasted work in Gia as her real breakout performance.
A certain magazine-cover glamor to its style doesn't quite mask the film's generally plain look, which does not do anything particularly ingenious to overcome an evidently low budget. But for what visual nuances there are (one thinks specifically of the color-popping scene where Jolie sports a bright red haute-couture dress while being zipped away to a drug deal on the back of a motorcycle), the disc's AVC/MPEG-4, 1080p high-definition transfer, anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, is excellent.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is very nicely done, with all the film's layers of sound emerging intact and rich from all the right places in your surround-sound system. It's a safe bet that Gia sounds significantly better here than it ever did upon its initial broadcast or in its prior VHS/DVD releases.
Dull when its leering gratuitousness and C-grade softcore sensibility aren't rearing their embarrassing heads, Gia is surely only being re-released to Blu-ray for what admittedly is an appealing, intriguing star turn from Angelina Jolie, then an unknown quantity. The principal emotional and/or intellectual response to Gia from anyone other than the most die-hard completist Jolie fans, however, will likely be relief on behalf of the actress that she took the film as proof of her paid-up dues and quickly parlayed it into projects that allowed her to leave the made-for-premium-cable ghetto (back when that was still what it was) far behind her. Skip It.