by Rob Gonsalves
For about the first hour of Spike Lee's ballsy satire "Bamboozled," I couldn't understand why so many critics had slammed it. It seemed fresh and biting -- maybe too fresh and biting for some people? Somewhat smugly, I decided that the majority of critics just didn't get it, couldn't deal with it, whatever. Then, around the 90-minute mark, the movie started to go bad.And that isn't even the bad news. The bad news is that there's another 46 minutes to go -- plenty of time for it to get even worse. Which it does.
"It tries so hard and fails so badly."
In Bamboozled, Spike Lee falls into the same trap that Oliver Stone did with Natural Born Killers: he makes a hammer-headed media satire, wielding a baseball bat where a scalpel would do more damage, and reiterates the same unsurprising points over and over. Like Stone, Lee falls on his ass when he tries to be funny. He's not a natural at comedy, even though many of his films do have hilarious moments; his humor tends to arise organically out of characters, particularly in the blinkered or self-righteous ways they express themselves, and there is some riotous character comedy in Bamboozled. Yet it all eventually gets buried under Lee's ambitions and preaching: This is an important movie, and around about that 90-minute equator you can just about feel the click as Lee shifts into important-movie mode. What should have been a fast, scalding hour and a half sprawls out to two hours and sixteen minutes, becoming, by the end, a flabby and melodramatic morality play.
Lee is annoyed (and saddened) that the only black-themed shows on television are crude comedies -- the millennial equivalents of minstrel shows. Bamboozled has flowered out of his anger, yet it feels less angry than, well, amateurish -- a Saturday Night Live sketch done at laborious length. Lee's premise glistens with possibility. Self-hating TV writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) can't get any of his pilots produced on his network, CNS. His boss, the loutish Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), browbeats Pierre for not "keeping it real" -- for not writing "black" enough. Rapaport, easily the funniest thing in the movie, plays this obnoxious clown so exuberantly -- pumping his fist in appreciation of his own tastelessness -- that he single-handedly achieves Lee's stated goal of comedy that you know you shouldn't laugh at but can't help laughing at. In his early scenes, at least, Rapaport takes a standard Spike Lee stereotype (the clueless white guy marooned in ignorance) and blasts it through the roof. (It's a pretty good joke that Rapaport is one of the "great Negroe actors" listed on the movie's poster.)
Racking his brain to devise a hip, cutting-edge show, Pierre finally hits upon the perfect idea. He's looking to get fired anyway, so he develops the idea of a new, real minstrel show -- Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, which will star two homeless guys of his acquaintance, talented dancer Manray (played by noted dancer/choreographer Savion Glover) and sidekick Womack (Tommy Davidson). Renamed Mantan and Sleep 'n' Eat, respectively, the pair are hired for the show by an enthusiastic Dunwitty, who eagerly buys Pierre's pitch. Dunwitty doesn't realize, of course, that Pierre intends the show as an ironic commentary on racist stereotypes, a show so blatantly offensive that it functions as a challenge to the network; Pierre tosses in everything from watermelons to blackface, and Dunwitty and the network eat it up.
Soon, so does America. After a bizarre first performance that plays to a sea of befuddled faces in a silent studio audience, Mantan eventually catches on; people start wearing blackface and identifying themselves as "niggers." In other words, the show Pierre has ironically created out of contempt for popular taste backfires on him, and he has to watch as it snowballs into a huge success, and then live it down. Lee makes incisive points about the price of selling out, the appropriation of black culture, the way popular media turns everything into fodder. For a while, the movie seems to be playing in the same ballpark as Network. Pierre has an assistant, Sloane (Jada Pinkett Smith), whose clownish brother Big Black Africa (Mos Def) hangs with a faux-militant posse calling themselves the Mau Maus; they, too, want to get on television. But as Mantan picks up steam, they look on in disgust, not really recognizing that they, with their gangsta pose and Black Panther Lite pretensions, embody stereotypes almost as grotesque as the blackface Mantan and Sleep 'n' Eat.
For a long while, Lee has fun tossing darts; you can feel him working out some of his frustration over the crap you used to see on UPN. But then, rather abruptly, the movie goes to hell. It begins by turning moralistic. Pierre starts suffering and even hallucinating (maybe) because his guilt and shame over his success are rotting him inside. Damon Wayans, who brings a clipped sense of play to his early scenes as the pompous Pierre with his piss-elegant accent and fake name, starts to falter in his later scenes of anguish. Pointlessly, the question of whether Sloane slept with Pierre to get her job becomes an issue because Manray, just as pointlessly, has developed feelings for her. Manray and Womack have a falling out, as do Pierre and Sloane in the first of many awful scenes. Even Dunwitty stops being funny and becomes a braying annoyance. Meanwhile, the Mau Maus -- who had seemed like harmless goofballs -- start plotting to kidnap Manray and murder him on a live cybercast. What? Where'd that come from?
It was a mistake, I think, for Lee to take such a sharp left turn into melodrama. Bamboozled ends up feeling just as conventional as any Hollywood drama made for grandmothers. The satire becomes less and less focused; when Pierre accepts an award for the show from presenter Matthew Modine, he first compliments Modine on his fine work in Rumble Fish and Wild Things (confusing him with Matt Dillon, unhilariously), then attempts to give his award to Modine, á la Ving Rhames at the Emmys forcing Jack Lemmon to take his trophy. The scene isn't funny, just mortifying (and will make no sense in twenty years -- does anyone even remember the Ving Rhames incident now, only five years after Bamboozled?). So is Mantan itself, though it seems meant to be funny in spite of itself -- you're supposed to thrill to Savion Glover's moves and laugh at Tommy Davidson's antics while at the same time being appalled at the context. It doesn't work out that way; even Glover's quicksilver tapping seems off, because at that point you're watching Savion Glover, an artist in his own right, trapped in another artist's off-kilter conception. It would be nice to say that Glover rises above his blackface and "coon" costumes and achieves dignity through dance, but the heaviness of the atmosphere drags him down.
Lee throws all this racist iconography -- the cotton, the watermelons, the montages of old movie clips and cartoons and tar-baby toys and posters -- onto the screen, but what's his point? That we haven't progressed much past the overt racism of the past? In Natural Born Killers, I didn't buy the notion that America would idolize Mickey and Mallory (more likely, America would be scared shitless of them). Similarly, in Bamboozled I don't really buy the idea that blackface and ancient racist stereotypes could become such a hit in America; even if Lee is using it as a reductio ad absurdum in theory, in practice and at such length it strains credulity (another reason why the movie needed to be shorter). And one could reasonably question why some of the black comedy shows deserve scorn; after all, comedy is comedy, not public relations, and who would argue that the white people in a Farrelly brothers movie or an Adam Sandler movie stand for all white people? True, most of the shuck and jive stuff of the past played a sizable role in dehumanizing blacks, but if a black performer today just wants to make people laugh, what's he or she supposed to do? Check with Spike Lee first to make sure his or her act is sufficiently dignified? Such criticism of modern-day "minstrel shows," while sometimes valid, sounds a little odd coming from Spike Lee, whose character Mars Blackmon in his debut feature She's Gotta Have It (as well as in several Nike commercials) was, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty much a clown.
Bamboozled is a mess -- or turns into a mess, anyway -- and it's a particularly painful mess, because it begins so well and has such promise. I didn't hate it -- it didn't make me angry, as Lee's Jungle Fever did -- but I came away from it numbed into indifference, a fatal response to what aims so strenuously to be corrosive satire. Lee gets locked into a double-tragic finale, and it feels completely unearned and synthetic. Wouldn't the satire be bolder if the show were a huge success and everyone involved were happy with it, and then, as always happens, Mantan started losing popularity and was eventually bumped aside in favor of an even more offensive show (possibly produced by the Mau Maus)? Instead, Pierre and Manray become martyrs for the entertainment of the masses and God knows what else. But really it's the movie that gets martyred.Spike Lee may have gotten bamboozled by his own madly conflicting ambitions. As a presence and as a talent, he may be too intimidating; he needs, and sometimes sorely lacks, a few people in his circle who will be honest with him when his ideas just don't cohere.
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originally posted: 12/26/06 12:23:52