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The Sound of Muzak

Jason's Lyric puts cliched words to an inept tune

With the release of the Houston-filmed Jason's Lyric, the wave of black movies that began with She's Gotta Have It has well and truly ended. The tide has actually been returning to the sea for some time now, and this amusingly inept film is like that mysterious surf foam you find on area beaches. What is this stuff? you ask yourself. Where did it come from?

The filmmakers will be glad to tell you exactly where it came from -- the deepest, purest caverns of the Western world's oversoul. The press kit advises that this story about two ill-fated brothers, combined with a story about star-crossed lovers, combined with a story about the brothers' abusive, one-legged Vietnam vet of a father, is "as old as Cain and Abel ... with a love story that has elements of 'Romeo and Juliet.'" In producer George Jackson's mind, the movie also enjoys comparisons with East of Eden and West Side Story, but those seem hardly worth mentioning after the Book of Genesis and Shakespeare.

To be fair, the movie does cover a lot of ground. In the person of Maddog, the drunken, one-legged father, we get yet another critique of America's mistreatment of its Vietnam vets. When Maddog, whose soul was once spun of the finest gold, turns out to be an ex-wife beater, the film offers a haunting premonition of the O.J. Simpson case. When one of Maddog's sons sort of accidentally shoots him, we get an understated plea to keep our household firearms either unloaded or under lock and key. And all of this comes in the opening moments, before Jason's (he's the Abel here) Lyric (she's the oh-so-poetic Juliet) even shows up.

But the movie merely skates over these weightier themes. At its very best, Jason's Lyric plays as a sitcom. At its more frequent worst, it feels like a hopeless mishmash of genres and sensibilities. While Maddog (played by Forest Whitaker, who must have had some time on his hands) is still a good, loving father -- that is, before he goes to Vietnam (can't say why they called him Maddog; maybe he had 20/20 vision) -- the movie presents a fuzzily romantic view of family life. Or it tries to, at least. But when we're shown Maddog taking his boys out into a field to be sprayed by a crop duster, you have to wonder if the filmmakers' really understand the impact of their images. Until much later, when it's revealed that the plane was spraying water (to help the wildflowers grow!), this looks like a rarefied form of child abuse.

When Maddog returns home a ruined man and becomes abusive, the cinematography keeps its burnished glow. By now, though, with Whitaker reduced to some very old-fashioned carpet chewing, ("Marry me," he keeps saying to his bottle) this soft focus is comically inappropriate. It's at this point that it becomes clear just how bad the acting is going to be. Whitaker's talent is much too potent for this silly role, but he tragically emotes as if he might actually save the movie, and looks ridiculous in the process. Similarly, the boy who plays Joshua (the Cain-child) glowers at his father with such willed intensity that he looks like he'll explode. The audience I saw this with laughed every time he went into a snit.

Jason (Allen Payne), the good son, has the most screen time. He's done acceptable work in CB4 and New Jack City, so the cartoony flatness of his character looks like just one more sign that director Doug McHenry doesn't have a way with actors. But at least his character feels like an imitation of a real individual. His love interest, a dreamy This Is It waitress named Lyric (Jada Pinkett) isn't even given a history. All Pinkett has to work with is Lyric's childish propensity for dreaming of the future. Watching buses go by and wondering where they're headed is her favorite pastime. She makes the Janet Jackson poetess of Poetic Justice look ocean-deep by comparison.

Every time Lyric is called on to express some emotion, or to define her relationship to poor Jason, she comes across as blithely self-centered. You don't get the feeling, however, that anyone associated with the film is critiquing her behavior. That may well be because she isn't taken as seriously as her male counterparts. They may be cliches, but she's kept at the sub-cliche level.

When on their second date Jason and Lyric settle in for some protracted al fresco lovemaking, flowers bloom, butterflies interrupt their annual migration toward Mexico to have a look and swans appear on a country bayou. The crowd in the movie theater was having none of this: they laughed at the flora and the fauna and cheered lustily when the amorous couple rolled over to reveal Jason's bottom. From sheer audience response, I'd judge that the movie's highlight. Which would be fine if this were a bawdy comedy. But this, the filmmakers make clear, is supposed to be "poetic."

The tone changes are slapped on so thoughtlessly that the movie finally edges toward camp. I wondered throughout if the filmmakers realized their movie was unintentionally funny and decided to go with the flow. By the climax, I decided they had. This scene, in which the bad guy (badder even than the bad brother) is so engrossed in sexing his long-nailed girlfriend, Marti, another soul-food slinger from This Is It, that he doesn't hear guns going off all around him, is so goofily comic that it's hard to imagine the filmmakers were unaware of what they were doing. Later, when he and Marti arrive at a scene of carnage, her two-inch nails have broken off, and their stubs are bandaged. The incongruity of her fashion problem with the (finally) Shakespearean body count of the ending I took as a deliberate joke.

So, yes, it's campy, but hardly enough to be an unintentional classic. See it, if you must, for its Houston locations (which are quite nice). Or if you're in the mood to laugh at -- rather than

with -- something.

Jason's Lyric.
Directed by Doug McHenry. With Forest Whitaker, Allen Payne, Jada Pinkett and Bokeem Woodbine.

Rated R.
119 minutes.

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