Maybe Spike Lee figured, "I made a great movie [last year's Clockers] about a serious subject [crack and violence and their impact on ghetto life]. The film got excellent reviews, but nobody saw it. Maybe if I make a frivolous movie [Girl 6] about a titillating subject [phone sex] and stock it full of cameos by all my hip show-biz pals [Quentin Tarantino, Madonna, Naomi Campbell], I can put some butts in theater seats and make a buck in the process."

Sorry, Spike. Back to the drawing board. In Girl 6, Spike Lee dials up phone sex and can't think of anything to say; instead of talking dirty, he gets cinematically tongue-tied. The movie affects the filmmaker's career like a severe air pocket; the drop-off in quality from Lee's previous film to his new one is so precipitous it could make your ears pop.

As the film opens, an aspiring actress (the beautiful but cool-to-the-point-of-impassivity Theresa Randle) auditions for a part. Hot young director QT (Quentin Tarantino in the first of Girl 6's cavalcade of lame cameos) listens impatiently to her stiff monologue for a while, then asks her to doff her top. She balks. He gives her an ultimatum: "Show us your tits" or walk. She gives in and removes her blouse, then bolts from the room in a fit of shame and indignation. Girl 6 director Lee clearly intends for his audience to share her embarrassment. What horrible, insensitive, exploitative work this movie business is.

The aspiring actress's sleazy agent (John Turturro in a wig that Howard Stern would kill for) dumps her. Her apoplectic acting coach cuts her off. Our noble heroine, desperate for money, puts her budding thespianship to work as a phone-sex operator identified not even by name but by number: Girl 6. Her new job requires her to talk a variety of strange men into experiencing orgasm, to encourage their fetishes, to stoke their fantasies. They ask her to vocally simulate bizarre and often degrading sexual acts. Does she feel shame and indignation? No. She finds the job alluring, liberating, and empowering. She likes it so much that she even starts to become addicted to her new fantasy life. Besides, it pays the bills and then some. Maybe her new gig will even enable Girl 6 to realize her lifelong dream of moving to L.A. to become a real actress!

That shaky premise barely has time to sink in before the film degenerates into an episodic morass. Girl 6 experiences problems with her ex-husband (Isaiah Washington), a proud shoplifter: He wants to reconcile, she doesn't. End of subplot. Girl 6 gets into her work to the point of ignoring her concerned, baseball memorabilia-obsessed neighbor Jimmy (director Lee, whose act has grown long in the tooth). Jimmy offers to help her polish up for auditions. She declines. Jimmy gives her a valuable baseball card. End of subplot. Girl 6 violates the cardinal rule of her business and agrees to meet one of her regular clients. He stands her up. End of subplot. Girl 6 receives calls at home from a pervert who knows her address and threatens murder. She takes refuge in Jimmy's apartment. The bad guy never materializes. End of subplot.

Disjointed and pointless though it may be, Girl 6 has its funny moments. Give Spike Lee 90 minutes of film on just about any subject, and you're guaranteed a few laughs. But they are few and far between here. For example, the director's lazy lampooning of obvious targets such as Girl 6's pathetic callers lacks Lee's usual spike. Lee and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks squander their best opportunity for knock-down drag-out hilarity by investing too little thought and imagination in the creation of these potential comic highlights. As a result, the phone boners all come off as one-dimensional caricatures, and not particularly funny ones at that.

Lee's gifts for fresh characterization and pointed social commentary desert him here. Neither the director, screenwriter Parks, nor Theresa Randle gives us much reason to care about Girl 6 and her case of low self-esteem. She's just another lost soul who dreams of becoming an actress and will do anything to achieve that goal, rationalizing away the moral dilemmas that might nag at nonthespians. Girl 6 equates moving to L.A. and getting a Screen Actors Guild card with deliverance. Now there's a contemporary attitude worthy of Lee's critical examination.

Girl 6 frequently invokes Lee's first feature film, 1986's rollicking She's Gotta Have It (Girl 6 auditions by reciting a monologue delivered by She's Gotta Have It protagonist Nola Darling). But where you had to laud Darling for her independence, her unapologetic enjoyment of sex, and her refusal to define herself in terms assigned by her male suitors, Girl 6 is still "finding herself." The only men she rebuffs are filmmakers who ask her to remove her top, as if that act is somehow infinitely more degrading than earning a living by helping strangers get off. Girl 6 embraces all the personas her male callers suggest; she sinks deeper and deeper into her fantasy world until she totally loses her own identity and forgets why she started doing this work in the first place. Which, come to think of it, could serve as a tidy metaphor for the audience's forgetting why it initially entered the theater to see this film.


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