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“I have no right to hold Tupac’s art hostage,” writes Tupac Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur, on her son’s official Web site, explaining his prodigious posthumous output. This week, she delivers even more of the late rapper’s art from bondage: the new documentary Tupac: Resurrection, on which she was a producer, as well as a tie-in soundtrack albumat least the eighth new Tupac LP to be released since his death, which makes three more than while he was aliveand a collectible coffee-table book. And coming soon: a clothing line, Makaveli Branded.
In light of this post-death marketing blitz, the “In His Own Words” tag line on Resurrection can’t help ringing a bit false. But just because it’s crass doesn’t mean that the film can’t be compelling. Director Lauren Lazin, a veteran of countless MTV specials and documentaries, blends old and new footage to allow Tupac to narrate his own bildungsroman, beginning with his birth after Afeni was released from jail in 1971 and ending with his death in a hail of bullets after a Mike Tyson fight in 1996. The cut-and-paste job is artfully done, with still photos and audio commentary gradually giving way to filmed interviews as Tupac gets older. (Though it’s unsurprising given Lazin’s heritage, there is a surplus of MTV material: Without the opening titles, you might think you were watching Tabitha Soren: Resurrection.)
Clips of early stage and screen performances reveal anew the rapper/ actor’s outsize magnetism. His startling screen debut, as the tough Bishop in Ernest Dickerson’s Juice, shows that Tupac wasn’t at all diminished by speaking words that weren’t his ownit didn’t really matter what Tupac was saying, as long as he was saying it. The legacy-buffing machine, however, eventually diminishes the outstanding performer that he was to magnify the prophet that he wasn’t. Along with a refresher on Tupac’s charisma, the film offers a reminder of how young he was: Hilarious footage of his lip-synching to “Parents Just Don’t Understand” as a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts comes just a few minutes before his emergence as a gangsta-rap superstar, and just a few more before his murder. At the age of 15 or 17 or 20, Lazin suggests, Tupac was smarter, more self-aware, and funnier than most people are at 40.
He was also more conflicted. Tupac was neither the first nor the last rapper to espouse racialist politics, or to set his scenes in the ghetto, or to glorify violence, or to dehumanize women. The fact that he did all of these things, often in the same verse, is part of what makes him compelling. But it certainly doesn’t mean that he had any kind of coherent philosophy that we can learn lessons from. Again and again, Lazin cuts her footage to set up Tupac’s detractors as fools and dupes. Criticism that his music is violent or sexist is dismissed by placing it in the mouth of stupidity avatar Dan Quayle, or by intercutting anti-rap rhetoric from Bob Dole with that famous footage of the presidential candidate falling off a podium.
Though unequal time is to be expected in a first-person hagiography, the conversation gets offensively one-sided when it turns to Tupac’s 1994 sexual-assault conviction. In the longest section of an overly long film, Shakur’s accuser is mercilessly pilloried, portrayed as a star-struck fan who wanted a piece of the rapper. As Tupac defends himselfall the while pleading that he doesn’t get a chance to defend himselfthere’s not one voice of dissent. Nor anyone to point out that Tupac was convicted by a jury.
Through it all, Afeni keeps her distance. But that’s not really to her credit: Just as she refused to participate in Nick Broomfield’s Biggie and Tupac, which cobbled together a questionable theory explaining the rappers’ murders, here she declines to ruminate what might be gleaned from the circumstances of her son’s death. It would have been far braver if she and Lazin had acknowledged that thug life has an almost inevitable conclusionand that its most prominent practitioner didn’t have all the answers. Tupac himself was smart enough to know that: In one clip, he talks about how he believes that he shouldn’t tone down his lyrics but realizes it can be a problem when kids mimic his rhymes. What’s the solution? “That’s the part I haven’t figured out yet.”
Will Ferrell might not be the best physical comedian in the world, or the most skillful mimic. But he can often sell a joke with just his floppy body, and there’s definitely something in that playful, malleable voice of his. His impressions of Alex Trebek on Saturday Night Live, for instance, crossed the thin line between steely composure and seething rage with merely a subtle shift in pitch.
At his very best, Ferrell merges these two comic modes almost, well, gracefully. His skills at synthesis were on display in last year’s Old School, a movie whose by-the-numbers script plods between virtuoso Ferrell set pieces. One of the funniest (if not most graceful) moments in that film comes when Ferrell’s Frank the Tank pours himself, naked, into his wife’s car after an ill-fated drunken streaking expedition. “Hey, honey,” he asks hopefully as his wife’s friends look on with horror, “do you think KFC is still open?” The comedian comes through this act of debasement more the charming naif than the desperate boorin other words, completely unlike Adam Sandler or Robin Williams.
If there’s any debasement in the heartwarming Elf, though, it’s that the sublimely gifted Ferrell is submitting to such tepid holiday pablum. The story starts as an infant steals away from one of those Christmas-movie orphanages and into Santa’s toy sack. The boy, Buddy (Ferrell), grows up at the North Pole under the care of Santa’s elves and soon outgrows his surrogate parents. In the movie’s early North Pole scenes, the humor comes from predictable sight gags: The giant Buddy showering in an elf-sized stall, squeezing into a tiny desk, and sitting on the knee of his tiny papa (Bob Newhart).
Though distinctly uncool, the gags are also disarmingly funny, thanks almost exclusively to Ferrell’s salesmanship. (Indeed, the lone non-Ferrell element that scores is a walk-on by The Station Agent’s Peter Dinklage as a dwarf titan of children’s books.) Rather than winking at the disconcertingly irony-free material that populates the screenplay, the actor straps on his yellow leggings and pointy hat and goes to work: Buddy is an overingratiating ball of unrepentant glee and boundless energy, prancing hyperactively through revolving doors and snowball fights and burying his face in bowls full of syrup-covered spaghetti. It’s a fabulous performance let down completely by the weakness of Jon Favreau’s direction, which never rises above cute homage to Rankin & Bass animated specials.
When the scene shifts to New York and Buddy’s search for his naughty-listed kiddie-lit-publisher real dad (an ably straight-manning James Caan), the film transforms into a Crocodile Dundee-esque fish-out-of-water comedy, complete with escalator fear and other modes of big-city incomprehension. Favreau and scripter David Berenbaum should have known better: As soon as a movie starts taking its comic cues from the Paul Hogan oeuvre, it’s pretty much done.
But maybe the filmmakers deserve a bit more credit: Both the plot of Elf and Ferrell’s performance as an emotionally stunted manchild owe a lot to the movie that made Steve Martin a star, The Jerk. In both films, a young man grows up thinking he’s something (an elf, black) that he’s not, then sets off to find himself, armed with an indomitable spirit and an overpowering naiveté. Watching Ferrell bounce off, around, and through a litany of unfamiliar people and situations is a joy. When concocting a vehicle for a charismatic comedic star, it seems, there’s no better place to start than utter cluelessness. CP