Portraits: American Gangster, Jimmy Carter Man from Plains
By Fernando F. Croce

Well-manicured grit is an unsightly thing. Ridley Scott, whose every image appears ready to be aired during Super Bowl intervals at ten grand a second, shoots for down and dirty street hyperrealism in American Gangster only to end up with the year's shiniest vision of squalor. (A shot of a junkie's body with a hypodermic needle pinned to a bluish arm is ready for framing and hanging on somebody's atrium.) "Epic" in flab (157 min.) though not in scope or vision, Scott's sprawling account of the late '60s-early '70s drug business is a stately affair, wanly trying to produce new bottles for the old wine. The Godfather saw the links between capitalism, gangsterism, and family, Scarface shot them to the moon -- American Gangster brings race to the table, and then does zero with it other than degrading it as a superficial format for the "based on a true story" bad guy/good guy conflict. For starters, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) escorts his aged gangland boss, "Bumpy" Johnson (Clarence Williams III), into a cavernous appliances store, where he expires with the threat of corporate modernization on his lips. The don is dead, Lucas ditches the old ways and takes over the Harlem heroin trade by eliminating the middle-man, traveling to the jungles of Indochina for direct access to uncut junk; ruthlessly shrewd, he treats his trade like any other product, gives it a brand name and makes his fortune. On the other side of the law is New Jersey cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a star of incorruptibility amid rampant shadiness ("fuckin' boy scout," someone at the station mutters as he turns in $1 million in dirty money).

What makes Frank run? Steven Zaillian's screenplay posits buried racial anger (having achieved power, he moves his extended clan to a lavish plantation mansion out of Margaret Mitchell's wet dreams), yet the underlying urge is less radical: Success. The search for success is what gives the portentously archetypal title its American intimation, uniting dapper kingpin and schlumpfy cop. Lucas and Roberts are equally tenacious in their causes and, according to Roberts's pissed-off ex-wife (Carla Gugino), both are going to Hell -- the two are braided in a cycle of profitable evils that extends beyond rivalry, where War supplies the criminal with narcotics while the criminal supplies the crooked authorities with money. The plot's most provocative aspects, however, are flattened by Scott's cardboard evocation of New York in the '70s (all 'fros, no soul), Zaillian's shallow criticism of corrupting power (familiar from his ghastly All the King's Men remake), and by weirdly bloodless performances. All too aware of the symbolism shoveled on his character's shoulders, Washington is less subdued than muffled -- he gives better performances for Scott's brother Tony (Crimson Tide, Déjà Vu), who accepts his place as hack instead of trying to adorn it with awards-season seriousness. Crowe lets his polyester ensemble do most of the acting; Josh Brolin as a slimy cop is given a mustache too heavy to twirl, Cuba Gooding, Jr. provides a flare of Superfly, Lymari Nadal as Lucas's wife is right out of the Bland Ingénue bin. Scratch away the shootings and the bags of heroin stashed in military coffins, and you're left with Sir Ridley's version of The Pursuit of Happyness.

*

It's easier to draw a halo over the head of an 82-year-old humanitarian still willing to pick up a tool belt than that of the mastermind who swayed the '70s drug trade, yet Jimmy Carter Man From Plains is less of a hagiography than American Gangster. While Scott seizes Washington's impersonation of Frank Lucas for hollow societal irony, Jonathan Demme follows the former President in heartfelt contemplation, inspired by how the man's moral and spiritual being stubbornly informs his political stances. The occasion is Carter's 2006 winter tour, when his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid was released in a flurry of controversy and the author dutifully braved the rounds of lectures, book-signing sessions, and talk-shows. Images of bulldozers and tanks during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appear like visions the former President can't get out of his head, he explains the meaning of the book's title over and over for commentators but draws the line at debating Alan Dershowitz, who in any case needs no help in making an ass of himself. Though too in awe of his subject to attain the "warts and all" portrait he intended, Demme is nevertheless intensely aware of the assorted ways media and politics can crisscross -- the monitors seen during the shooting of the Charlie Rose interview and the nearly molecular close-up of Carter on a TV screen are practically mementos from Demme's Manchurian Candidate remake, Jay Leno comes backstage to dub the documentary a "reality show." Throughout all this is Carter, steely and vulnerable and, like Spalding Gray, Jean Dominique, and Neil Young, simultaneously close and ineffably mysterious before Demme's rapt and limber lenses.

*

Bee Movie has an unmistakable kinship to its 1998 DreamWorks cousin, Antz. Both are CGI-animated products about insectoid misfits voiced by recognizable comics, both season saccharine plots with a pitch of neutered Marxism, and both become less appealing the more you look at them. While Antz simply used Woody Allen's vocals for a brief psychiatrist-couch gag, Steve Hickner and Simon J. Smith's movie wants not just Jerry Seinfeld's voice, but also his brand of comedy -- the way the beehive-dwelling hero, Barry B. Benson, apropos of nothing riffs on TiVo in the what's-the-deal tones made familiar by Jerry with microphone in front of a brick wall. Seinfeld also co-wrote the story about a bee who ditches the colony, falls for a florist (Renée Zellweger), and sues humanity for stealing his people's honey, but Bee Movie doesn't evoke the early, brilliant Seinfeld episodes so much as the late, calamitous ones. Pooh Bear takes a tranquilizer dart to the neck, a reference to The Graduate is pointlessly shoehorned, celebrity cameos ("Have you ever been stung, Mr. Sting?") hardly mitigate the boredom of the ridiculously protracted courtroom sequence. The ripe animation is occasionally beguiling, but the hyperactive comic randomness is deadening. Not even close to sponge-worthy.


Reviewed November 12, 2007.

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