Nothing Doing

At first glance it might not appear that Henry Jaglom and Spike Lee have much in common. Jaglom is white, Lee is black. Jaglom is 51, Lee is 37. Jaglom handles a camera clumsily and artlessly, like a construction worker would a Stradivarius. Lee is a consummate stylist whose visual flair is often his strongest suit. Jaglom is tattered and frayed Chuck Taylor high-tops. Lee is a Nike man.

Jaglom does not make much use of music. For Lee music is almost as integral a component to his work as dialogue. Race is not an issue in Jaglom's movies. Race is always an issue in Lee's movies.

Yet there are some striking similarities. Both are maddeningly self-indulgent filmmaking mavericks, renowned for doing things their own way. Neither makes light, cheesy, Hollywood-style confections. Family values, both on-screen and off, play a big part in both men's newest releases. Jaglom co-wrote Babyfever with wife Victoria Foyt, who also stars in the film. Lee collaborated on his screenplay with brother Cinque and sister Joie, who has a small part in Crooklyn. Fine ensemble acting and fresh dialogue sparkle throughout both films, and the absence of a cohesive plot is both films' weakest element.

Babyfever gets away with not having a story because Jaglom boldly ignores the concept altogether. You never get the sense that his film takes itself seriously as a narrative, so you kick back and laugh at the quirky details: the witty repartee, the not-so-well-concealed neuroses, the subtle yet telling character tics. Crooklyn is a major letdown because you keep expecting it to take off and it never does. It's a rambling, episodic mess, only partially redeemed by an outstanding performance from eight-year-old Zelda Harris in what must be viewed, by default, as the film's leading role.

Harris plays Troy Carmichael, the only daughter among five mischievous children being raised by schoolteacher-homemaker Carolyn and her unemployed, idealistic, jazz musician husband Woody. Alfre Woodard's Carolyn is a candidate for sternest mother in cinema history. Even though she's a teacher, Lee never shows her in the classroom, and the suspicion grows that perhaps this is because she has murdered or expelled all her students in fits of rage. She bitches and moans a lot about preparing lesson plans and grading papers, but Lee never shows her doing any of it. When, near the end of the film, little Troy returns from a lengthy stay with her aunt to find her mother has been hospitalized, you half expect the diagnosis to be terminal PMS. (Of course, this movie is set in the Seventies and that fearful condition didn't officially enter the pop culture lexicon until the Eighties.) Alfre Woodard is usually a fine actress, but this is a one-note performance. And that note is awfully shrill.

So mom tries to rule with an iron fist, dad takes the artistic high road and refuses to play other people's music, and the kids get into lots of mischief but nothing really serious. That's pretty much all that happens, except for the part where they send Troy to stay with her Aunt Song and Uncle Clem. Eventually mom gets sick and Troy assumes the traditional female housekeeping duties. Finito.

In an interview included with the publicity materials for this film, Spike Lee explains his motivation for making Crooklyn: "[Black filmmakers] have gotten into a rut telling the same story again and again A the hip-hop, drug, gangsta rap, urban, inner-city movie. I don't think that's the totality of the African-American experience and I really think that audiences are starting to want more than these movies can give them." Give Lee credit there A his film steadfastly eschews those Nineties phenomena in favor of Seventies touchstones like Strat-O-Matic Baseball, Rock Em Sock Em Robots, Etch-A-Sketch, the Walt "Clyde" Frazier-led Knicks, and Quick Draw McGraw. Crooklyn's high point is a scene in which Troy and her brothers take a temporary respite from their constant sibling-baiting to all sing "I Woke Up in Love This Morning" with the Partridge family. In fact, the best thing about the movie is the way Lee has crammed each frame with so much Seventies effluvia it's almost worth the price of admission just to wallow in the flotsam and jetsam of the disco decade.

As is the norm for a Spike Lee joint, music plays a big part. Maybe too big, this time. When Radio Raheem showed up with his boom box blasting Public Enemy in Do the Right Thing, it meant something. Crooklyn's soundtrack is crowded with so many great tunes from the Seventies, and they serve so little purpose, that you have to wonder if Lee has an ulterior motive, like putting K-Tel out of business.

Crooklyn packs a few surprises. Lee lets down his guard a little and reveals a playful, almost perverse comic sensibility. John Waters would be justifiably proud of the scenes in which a cat is wielded like an assault weapon or a pet pooch is catapulted from a foldout bed. And then there's the Ru Paul cameo.

But in the end it's all for naught. Like cotton candy, Crooklyn is lightweight fluff spun out of wisps of sugar. It's great for a bite or two, but after a while you start wishing there were something more substantial at the core.

 
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