Powerfully potent, perturbingly personal, yet primarily puzzling, Ulu Grosbard's Georgia is an unsettling case study of sibling rivalry among songstresses Georgia and Sadie Flood. Georgia (Mare Winningham) is Seattle's premier adult contemporary artist, a gifted but remote yuppie successfully juggling the concerns of work and family -- her adoring sister Sadie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a desperately untalented Gen-X burnout, boozing and vamping her way through gigs on the bar circuit. The intimacy with which we view their lives is both the success and failure of this penetrating yet erratic film. Like the complex tensions that develop between family members, Georgia can be tantalizingly ambiguous or acutely irritating, depending on your tolerance for the excesses of Leigh's character.
Never known for playing stable people, Jennifer Jason Leigh pours on the manic to achieve Sadie's slow burn, an admirably earnest performance that wavers between astoundingly bad and astonishingly heartfelt. Most of the time Leigh's acting is a formula failure -- she breaks into goofy Ace Ventura grins to suggest delight and excessive Goth-girl pouting to approximate remorse.
On stage, however, whether painfully murmuring Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue" in a near-empty bar or woozily droning "I'll be your Mirror" Nico-style at a Jewish wedding, Leigh succeeds in peeling back Sadie's hussy-next-door exterior to reveal an aching attention-consuming soul, relegated by her sister's success to an agonizing existence of comparative obscurity.
Yet, Leigh's stage bravado is a double-edged sword. Her teary nine minute version of Van Morrison's "Take Me Back" -- which, in attempting to approach Janis Joplin ends up somewhere between Gomer Pyle and Patty Hearst -- may be illuminating as a character analysis but nevertheless brings to mind everything bad about karaoke bars. In sum, Sadie's aggravating schemes for attention and undeniable lack of talent both sustain and defeat the film. We easily empathize with Georgia's annoyance and embarrassment for her sister, yet, like Georgia, we feverishly hope the girl will just give up singing for good.
Refusing to allow easy answers to the familial questions it poses, Georgia can be a peach or it can be the pits -- it all depends on one's aural endurance.