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Four Weddings and a Funeral aside, the sort of British comedy that will do business on this side of the Atlantic has quickly been reduced to a formula: working-class spunk + deindustrialization + music and dance. In The Full Monty, unemployed steel workers stripped to ’70s pop-soul, and in Brassed Off striking miners defiantly played marching-band music. Now, the title character of Billy Elliot learns to dance ballet to the accompaniment of T. Rex ditties and the sound of truncheons hitting his father and older brother.
The year is 1984, which Margaret Thatcher did her best to make Orwellian. In Britain’s coal-mining regions, strikers faced riot police in showdowns thatat least as depicted by Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldryrecall the skirmishes between British troops and suspected members of the IRA common in movies about Northern Ireland. Billy’s father (Gary Lewis) and brother (Jamie Draven) are on strike, but that’s not the household’s only burden. The family is also haunted by the death of Billy’s mother. Dad is in no mood to discover that 11-year-old Billy has begun spending his boxing-lesson money on ballet instruction instead. Of course, it’s Mom who inspired her son to dance: “Always be yourself,” she counseled in a letter Billy treasures.
Billy’s ballet classmates are all girls, but that doesn’t mean that they’re shy and delicate. (One young dancer who’s fond of Billy offers to show him her “fanny,” which doesn’t mean the same thing in British slang as in American.) Presiding over the class is hard-edged but warm-hearted Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters), who’s as tough as any miner. She encourages Billy to audition for the Royal Ballet School, but first he’ll have to confront his father, who can’t comprehend how his son could want to be a ballet dancer.
For what it’s worth, Billy doesn’t look much like a ballet dancer. He practices pirouettes in a comic montage, but his big numbers owe more to Gene Kellyor Footloosethan to Mikhail Baryshnikov. Although the soundtrack eventually gets to Tchaikovsky, first it rocks through “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” “Children of the Revolution,” “I Love to Boogie,” andfor a cops ‘n’ miners clash”London Calling.” Billy Elliot esteems sensitivity, but it doesn’t really trust highbrow dance and music.
The miners’ strike is here because it locates the story in time and place, but also because scripter Lee Hall couldn’t find any other major source of conflict. Billy’s battle with his dad doesn’t last long, and his one row with his teacher takes only seconds. When he learns that his best friend is a cross-dresser, Billy is perplexed, but just briefly. The kid really is a child of the revolution.
Daldry periodically jolts the movie with shots of brutality, once cross-cutting ballet moves with the miners’ attack on a group of scabs. Formally, this is galvanizing, as visually striking as the rays of milky light that stream into the community gym where Billy learns to leap and spin. Indeed, the film moves so deftly that many may not even notice the slightness of the story or the flimsiness of the disputes. It’s a better dancer than Billy.
Spike Lee’s new film, Bamboozled, is angry andwell, actually, that’s about it. Less a movie than a provocation, this assault on the portrayal of African-Americans on contemporary TV probably would have been more effective as a street protest. Lee’s supporters argue that the film will begin a useful dialogue, but before it can do so, people will have to sit through the thing, which is nearly impossible. Leaden, confused, blatant, and repetitive, Bamboozled is as much an overblown sketch as any film spun off from Saturday Night Live.
Bamboozled takes its title from a flick by one of Lee’s favorite directorshimself: With an MTV-style quick cut, Lee inserts a clip of Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, telling his audience it’s been “bamboozled.” (Ironically, Washington has come to specialize in movies that bamboozle history.) As the dedication to Budd Schulberg reveals, however, the movie’s premise also owes something to A Face in the Crowd, the Schulberg-scripted account of a nobody who’s magnified into a demagogue by TV exposure.
In Lee’s scenario, the overmagnified force is not a person but a concept. Absurdly refined and painfully cosmopolitan African-American TV-programming executive Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is informed that his failing network’s programming is “too white” by his black-wannabe boss Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport, doing familiar schtick). Disgusted, Delacroix resolves to create a program that even Dunwitty will find offensive: Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, complete with watermelon, banjos, and two singin’, dancin’, and jivin’ black performers (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson) in blackface. That this is an exorcism rather than an entertainment concept is revealed by the fact that Delacroix insists that the performers darken their faces with historically accurate burnt cork rather than modern makeup.
Incredibly, Dunwitty loves the idea. Even more incredibly, the show goes on the air and becomes a hit, attracting an enthusiastic studio audience that’s also in blackface. The only major characters who are disturbed by this development are Delacroix, his principled assistant, Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith), and the Mau-Maus, a bumbling Public Enemy-style hiphop collective led by Sloan’s brother, Big Black Africa (Mos Def). The Mau-Maus plot their revenge, which would be more mercifulfor both Delacroix and the viewerif it came about an hour earlier.
The director’s vision of black performers in blackface is indeed “transgressive”as one of his boosters puts itbut it makes its point very quickly. The rest of the movie is a mess, a scattershot assemblage of satire, melodrama, romance, found objects, and the offhand anti-Semitic stereotype. Lee fills the screen with fraught visual asides, from the diagram of a slave ship on Delacroix’s computer screen to racist knickknacks and a montage of racially offensive bits from old movies and TV shows. There’s the potential for a vivid cinematic essay here, if only the film didn’t waste so much time on stilted performances, recycled subplots, and stumbling narrative. Lee has never been much of a storyteller anyway, and Bamboozled would have been an ideal opportunity for him to devise a form that would serve rather than hobble his message.
Rod Lurie wants to take you inside. He wants to show you how the nation’s political elite walk, talk, and even eat. He wants you to taste the privilege of being among the presidential entourage, to feel the pulsing adrenaline of helping to make a momentous decision. He wants to wrap you so completely in privileged detail that you won’t even notice when, in the last act, something goes kablooey.
In the writer-director’s previous film, Deterrence, the thing that exploded was nothing less than a nuclear bomb, dropped on Iraq by America’s first Jewish president. Ludicrous as that movie’s final moments were, they warmed the hearts of at least a few conservative commentators. In The Contender, the bomb is a metaphorical one, and it goes off in the face of right-wing Rep. Shelly Runyon (executive producer Gary Oldman, who reportedly is unhappy with the film). It turns out that Lurie is a peddler of equal-opportunity claptrap.
Lurie’s protagonist is Democratic Sen. Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), the first woman ever nominated to fill the job of a deceased vice president; she’s a liberal ex-Republican with a supportive husband, a young son, and few indiscretions in her past. Whereas Rob Reiner’s The American President boldly stood for the right of a widowed president to date, The Contender no less gallantly supports the prerogative of the vice president to have had a drunken threesome as a sorority initiation. What administration could be inspiring these guys?
Cocky, perennially snacking President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) unhinges Runyon when he names Hanson instead of the leading candidate, Virginia Sen. Jack Hathaway (William L. Petersen, playing roughly the same role he did in The Skulls). Under interrogation by the weaselly Runyon, Hanson refuses to deny that some compromising college-days photos depict her. It’s “beneath my dignity,” she responds. That would have been the end of her nomination in the real Washington, but in Lurie’s fantasy capital, things are just getting started. Evans (not to be confused with the Ward 2 Councilmember) and his staff lead a counteroffensive, with the help of an FBI investigation whose target is supposed to be enigmatic. (It’s not.)
Lurie has said he wrote the film as a showcase for Joan Allen, who specializes in icy wives and has even played the iciest, Pat Nixon. But The Contender is a boys club, with swaggering performances from Bridges as well as Sam Elliott and Philip Baker Hall as veteran political infighters, and a chameleonlike transformation from Oldman, who sounds utterly Middle American while appearing only slightly less alien than he did in The Fifth Element. Allen’s Hanson is unflappable, but she looks flimsy compared to these lusty brawlers. Although the film is dedicated to “our daughters,” its aura is distinctly macho.
Both Hanson and Evans are provided opportunities to give ringing speeches that ring false; her litany of mostly liberal convictions would be political suicide, and his command performance before Congress is simply unconstitutional. The plot doesn’t turn, however, on either of these events. As in Deterrence, Lurie wins the bout with a narrative sucker punch that has nothing to do with the fundamental issues his script raises. Lurie may revel in his ability to get inside, but he doesn’t really know how to conduct himself once he gets there. CP