- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2000


Several recent movies reflect the influence of vintage titles with varying degrees of obviousness, effectiveness or discredit.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. It would be preferable if a substantial number of new films were hostages to immediacy, dramatized fresh from the social observations of writers and directors. But since even those exemplary cases would reflect influential work from the past, and would become museum pieces for future generations within a decade or so, it doesn't make much sense to insist that filmmakers trust to nothing but their own experience and powers of invention.
Some influences are more stimulating and trustworthy than others, however, and it's difficult to detect a salutary influence among the current examples.
The most problematic is "Bamboozled," Spike Lee's unbearable polemic about a desperately opportunistic TV network that engineers an offensive ratings sensation by reviving a blackface minstrel format.
Mr. Lee has acknowledged thematic debts to both "A Face in the Crowd," a celebrated Elia Kazan-Budd Schulberg collaboration of 1957, and "Network," a celebrated Sidney Lumet-Paddy Chayefsky collaboration of 1976. Those forerunners sounded scornful and hysterical alarms about the demagogic or culturally corrupting potential in mass entertainment. Everything the filmmakers deplored was concentrated in comic-grotesque characters: Andy Griffith as an unscrupulous, lecherous country entertainer in "Crowd" and Faye Dunaway as an unscrupulous, lecherous programming executive in "Network."
A more recent forerunner was "Bulworth," Warren Beatty's heavy-handed and seldom amusing satire about a demented politician (clearly suggested by Peter Finch's demented broadcaster in "Network") who begins to affect street argot and regard himself as a kind of reborn soul brother and urban outlaw.
Mr. Beatty seemed to rival his protagonist as a crackpot: Viewers on the same wave length were expected to share an absurd appreciation of racial injustice as a result of watching a senile white political hack (and lecher, in keeping with a proud tradition) lose his mind. "Network" had labored under a similar grandiose delusion, although without the race-comedy trappings.
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The common thread in all three pictures is that they degenerate into self-righteous and self-defeating rants. They're remarkably treacherous objects of emulation. Mr. Lee's grievances against popular culture, particularly in its depiction of black characters or cavalier exploitation of black performers, remain confused in ways that coincide with the garbled motives of his protagonist, Damon Wayans as an effete snob of a programming executive, Pierre Delacroix.
The minstrel format is Delacroix's sarcastic brainstorm, and it becomes his Frankenstein's monster. When the show becomes a hit (never convincing, but one doesn't totally reject the idea that some network might try a similar gambit, sooner or later), the mastermind feels miserable.
Mr. Lee, however, needs to sort out miserable motives. Does the success mock his contempt for a white vulgarian who happens to boss the network? (As this crass, vain authority figure, Michael Rapaport borrows some of Bulworth's stupidity: He regards himself as "blacker" than the Harvard-educated Delacroix.) Or does he despair of black viewers because they can't perceive his subversive subtlety, which aspires to transcend stereotypes by reviving them in the crudest form?
While the principal characters sink into despair, the movie settles for a permanent muddle, more or less par for the course with overreaching, breast-beating polemics.
Chris Rock, interviewing Mr. Lee on his TV show before the movie was released, attempted some belated therapy by teasing the filmmaker about his own defensive persona. It does become a little preposterous for a rich and successful manipulator of pop culture to pretend that he nurses everlasting resentments for racial stereotypes that characterize bygone decades.
Mr. Lee inserts a guilt-trip montage of vintage film clips near the end of "Bamboozled," covering a time frame roughly from "The Birth of a Nation" to "Gone With the Wind."
Mr. Lee's quickie movie history course seems to end at about 1940, eliminating such later additions to the Hollywood cavalcade as Sidney Poitier, Eddie Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Spike Lee himself. It's even pre-television, apart from an allusion to "Amos 'n' Andy," so Mr. Lee's argument wanders away from the medium that is supposed to be the focus of grievance in "Bamboozled."
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A new comedy, "Bedazzled," owes its existence to a 1967 diabolical farce of the same title, directed by Stanley Donen as a showcase for the English comedy team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
The original "Bedazzled," available on home video, is a distillation of the humor shared by sophisticated young comedians who emerged between the late 1950s and late 1960s. As a devil's dupe, Mr. Moore shares several ridiculous, frustrating romantic interludes with a once vaunted newcomer named Eleanor Bron. The tone of these routines was similar to the Mike Nichols-Elaine May teamwork that already had charmed Americans, especially collegians.
The new "Bedazzled" does not have a similarly distinctive, updated comic tone. It needs to fall back on the likability of Brendan Fraser, who inherits the Moore role. Nominally, Elizabeth Hurley replaces the late Mr. Cook as a chronically treacherous devil, given to petty betrayals and pranks, but one is not watching a crack comedy team while watching the new co-stars.
To some extent, the movie works despite their incompatibility. One also is reminded of how much biblical familiarity was packed into the original, written by Mr. Cook. The remake seems to assume a public that no longer comprehends nonstop and largely facetious references to the Bible. I'm not sure why. The seven deadly sins, exploited humorously in "Bedazzled," enjoyed a comeback in the crime thriller "Seven."
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"Pay It Forward" and "The Legend of Bagger Vance," which aspire to be inspirational tear-jerkers, would be better off if they demonstrated superior copycat attributes. The former, which celebrates a little boy's effort to foster benevolence, recalls certain aspects of Frank Capra's "Meet John Doe," but it lacks the illusions of social turmoil and density that Mr. Capra at his most dynamic could depict. The title character of "John Doe," played by Gary Cooper, does seem to engender a social movement. "Pay It Forward" makes similar claims for the Haley Joel Osment's schoolboy but can't provide the evidence.
Bagger Vance," which attempts to use a vintage golf tournament, circa 1930, as an inspirational healing device for a disillusioned young man played by Matt Damon, needs the stylistic assurance that worked for "The Natural," which starred Robert Redford as a similarly disillusioned baseball player who fashions a miracle comeback in 1939. The lamentable coincidence is that Mr. Redford directed "Bagger Vance."
An ideal expressive instrument for director Barry Levinson in the earlier film, he fails to protect Mr. Damon and co-stars Will Smith and Charlize Theron with a comparable fairy-tale sophistication and sentimental rapture. Some influences that cry out to be invoked just can't be conjured up in time to save pictures that grope for salvation.
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The turgid, fatalistic crime melodrama "The Yards" reaches back toward "The Godfather" and "On the Waterfront" without getting a secure grip on the former's look or the latter's plot. The Canadian satire "Stardom" updates a very dated title from 1965, "Darling," and has rather more fun with the idea of rags-to-riches celebrity in the world of high fashion and fortune hunting. The movies share a fundamental shallowness, but the new one does carry its shallowness with more pleasure and far less snobbery.
Perhaps one should exclude the new duds derived from self-evident prototypes: "Book of Shadows," the ill-conceived sequel to "The Blair Witch Project," and "Charlie's Angels," the stupefying revamp of an old TV series. The influences are so botched and degraded that it's certainly more merciful to pretend that the films were never made.
What has been encouraging? Comedies that stake out a modest slice of life and then portray it fondly and cleverly. The best examples have been "Bring It On," "Best in Show" and "Dr. T & the Women."
The first came as a complete surprise, but the other two continue partnerships that had been promising: Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy in the case of "Show" and Robert Altman and Anne Rapp in the case of "Dr. T." Their best influences were previous collaborations: Mr. Guest and Mr. Levy were first associated on "Waiting For Guffman," and Mr. Altman also directed Miss Rapp's first screenplay, "Cookie's Fortune."
It's always a blessing when superior collaborators demonstrate that their teamwork is repeatable and that they could go on indefinitely having a good influence on each other.


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