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'Voice' rises to dazzling heights of badness

The problem with most bad movies about aspiring talents is that not enough of them, as Ed McMahon used to say, "reach for the stars -- and catch 'em." Occasionally we're lucky enough to get a movie of such dazzling pomposity (the ballet-school drama "Center Stage") or spectacular atrocity ("Glitter") that it's tough to watch underachievers such as "From Justin to Kelly," "Honey," or "You Got Served" without shedding a tear for the missed opportunity.

But that also makes it easier to spot a timeless classic when it emerges. The new Hilary Duff movie "Raise Your Voice" doesn't simply reach for the stars, it grabs at them like they were free keychains at a college recruitment meeting. The movie is the most fun kind of terrible.

It chronicles the rise of Terri Fletcher from meek Arizona teen dreamer to participant in a premier performing arts program in Los Angeles, where, for one August, her mettle and her thin, bland voice will be put to the test, where she will blossom into -- drum roll, please -- Hilary Duff.

But before Terri is transformed from an uncertain moth into the sort of self-confident butterfly who aces the squat-and-sing (is there even a class for that?), she will have to cope with the death of her supportive brother (Jason Ritter), deceive her forbidding father (David Keith), and learn to take her dubious songwriting gifts to their sappiest-ever extremes.

She also has to be crafty about the three-way phone calls between herself, her parents (Rita Wilson is Mom), and her merlot-swilling sculptress aunt (Rebecca De Mornay), whom she's pretending to stay with so her father doesn't have a nuclear meltdown. (Dad tried to make it in LA and failed.)

There are tears, fears, and Terri falling head over heels for Jay (Oliver James), the program's guitar-playing Don Juan, or, more appropriately, its John Mayer. James, incidentally, is the same dude who loved up rival 'tween royal Amanda Bynes in "What a Girl Wants." In "Raise Your Voice," Jay once had a fling with Robin (Lauren C. Mayhew), who, with her blond tendrils and bitterness, gives the proceedings a touch of Elizabeth Berkley in "Showgirls." But this movie isn't trolling for trash (nobody likes Robin), and it's unafraid to be square: It swears that Duff is a truly moving talent.

That's a galling suggestion, but the movie wouldn't be as blissfully bad were Terri the only person who believed in herself. Written by Sam Schreiber and directed by Sean McNamara, this is a vehicle preposterously devoted to its star. Before he dies, her brother says, "You have the best voice I have ever heard." John Corbett (as the school's hairiest teacher) even gives Terri a solo -- in Handel's "Messiah."

Unlike "Fame," last year's "Camp," or even, to some extent, "The Turning Point," the kids in "Raise Your Voice" have self-esteem that scrapes the sky. They're ambitious but not unbearably obnoxious. (Except you, Robin. You're unbearable.) In fact, Terri's sassy roommate Denise (Dana Davis) is all business. She's the Poor Black Girl who has to bag groceries and play her violin for money to make ends meet.

This music program is filled with people who look like punks, skaters, hip-hoppers, stoners, Rastas, sluts, and Goths. But "Raise Your Voice" believes in a teen monolith, in the same way that Clear Channel suggests there is but one radio station. And what a well-harmonized monolith it is!

More than once, we're treated to a schoolyard jam-along. One person starts playing an instrument, then the whole place, playing every instrument known to man, joins in. Robin hears Jay on guitar and says, "Hey Jay, nice hook!" And Jay says, "Jump in and pick it up," which she does: "Ooo-ooo-ooo, yeah!" The camera starts going crazy to get it all, as if the only way to capture the buxom blonde holding the saxophone is sideways. Were the Muppets ever this excited to rock out?

The movie's enthusiasm is as indelible and shiny as the lip gloss its star wears to bed. I just wish I liked Duff more. Even when she seems on top of the world, she always holds her tummy and looks a little worried, like a person who's just eaten a burrito that's not sitting well. In the end, Duff's Terri knows what she has to do if she's going to win the program's scholarship: rule a talent show. She takes the stage and belts out some mean Radio Disney. The performance is south of mediocre, but you still feel like you're witnessing a peculiar triumph of the human spirit. That, or the ongoing ascent of an entertainment-biz concoction. It's hard to say. Either way, my lighter's in the air.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

Raise Your Voice

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