Talk It Up

Spike Lee works the phone-sex lines, but loses his connection

It says a lot about Spike Lee's creative energy, and his adherence to the American work ethic, that within the space of a decade he's made nine feature films. And, mind you, that's not counting all the commercials, music videos and campaign spots he's dashed off between movies.

Even more impressive than the quantity, however, is the quality. Almost single-handedly, Lee opened the door -- kicked through it, really -- for an entire generation of black filmmakers with She's Gotta Have It, his brazenly self-assured 1986 debut feature about an equally self-assured voluptuary who refuses to live by anyone else's rules. Since then, he has directed at least three certifiably great movies (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and, most recently, Clockers), and brilliant bits and pieces of other, lesser pictures.

Girl 6, Lee's latest, is, alas, one of those lesser efforts. Even in this lightweight work, however, there are dazzling flashes of Lee's go-for-broke, shoot-the-moon adventurousness. Girl 6 is nothing if not busy -- almost to a fault. The movie bobs, weaves, saunters and shimmies to the pulsating beat of new and original songs by the Artist Temporarily Known Again as Prince. (He's listed simply as Prince -- not the Artist Formerly Known, etc. -- in the credits and advertisements.) The wall-to-wall music provides a suitably sensual accompaniment for the misadventures of Judy, a struggling New York actress played by Theresa Randle.

When we first meet Judy, she's trying to impress a loutish director (played by -- typecasting alert! -- Quentin Tarantino) by delivering the opening monologue from, of all things, She's Gotta Have It (an inside joke that, come to think of it, is even cleverer than the casting of Tarantino). Trouble is, the director, who's holding auditions for an upcoming "African-American drama," is much more interested in seeing how Judy looks without her blouse. Judy is just desperate enough to briefly bare her breasts -- and just proud enough to quickly change her mind, button up and walk out the door.

Bad things continue to happen. Her agent (John Turturro) drops her for being prudish. ("When Sharon Stone spread her legs on screen," he bellows, "I knew -- there was a star!") Her acting coach (Susan Batson) drops her for being late with tuition payments. About the only person in the world who's eager to see her is Jimmy (played by Lee himself), her neighbor in the apartment down the hall. And he has an ulterior motive: he needs a loan to cover his rent payment, because all of his money is tied up in baseball memorabilia.

But Judy can barely cover her own expenses, which is why she takes a job with a phone-sex service operated by the maternally authoritative Lil (Jenifer Lewis). Lil chooses her "telecommunications sales representatives" with instinctive precision, then trains them with all the motivational zeal of someone recruiting Tupperware sales personnel. In order to protect the guilty, each employee is given an alias. Judy is dubbed Girl 6. When it comes to giving phone sex, though, she proves to be a ten. Quickly, she's flush with money and glowing with self-confidence -- all of which makes her more alluring than ever in the eyes of her larcenous ex-husband (Isaiah Washington, a first-rate actor in a two-dimensional role).

The secret of her success? Judy insists that her new job is simply another type of acting -- unscripted, to be sure, but acting nonetheless. But Jimmy, who views the world in terms of pro sports, remains skeptical. "Is there a phone-sex hall of fame?" he asks. "Is there the equivalent of Cooperstown for phone sex?" As Jimmy says this, Lee allows a touch of moralizing to seep into his voice. Unfortunately, two-thirds of the way through Girl 6, he allows a great deal of moralizing to seep into the movie. After that, things pretty much go downhill.

Until Lee feels the need to punish Judy for her transgressions, Girl 6 is a playfully funny and spiritedly funky comedy. Lee gets a great deal of comic mileage from contrasting the fantasies inspired by Lil's staffers with the relatively ordinary nature of their real-life attitudes and appearances. (Girl 29, a sturdily built black woman in dreadlocks played marvelously by newcomer Shari Freels, is hilarious in her dead-serious monologue as a svelte beauty "with long blond hair and big blue eyes.") Lee gets even bigger laughs while presenting Judy's own private fantasies, daydreams that find her cast as a blaxploitation heroine (she, not Pam Grier, is Foxy Brown), Dorothy Dandridge and a TV sitcom player. In the last sequence, it should be noted, Lee saves the funniest business for himself: he appears as George Jefferson in an affectionate parody of The Jeffersons.

Lee also takes the time to convey the sisterly camaraderie that develops among the phone-sex operators, a diverse group that includes Debi Mazur and Naomi Campbell. By contrast, the men who call these hard-working women are pathetic at best, obnoxious at worst. (Richard Belzer makes a brief appearance as the very worst of the lot.) Cinematographer Malik Sayeed, who previously collaborated with Lee on Clockers, manages to make the guys seem even more like losers by photographing them on video, then transferring the video to film. The women, all photographed in standard 35 mm, appear much sharper -- in every sense of the term -- and are afforded much more respect. Well, okay, most of the women. Madonna does a cameo as a rival phone-sex mogul, and her part consists mainly of looking like a transvestite of the Weimar Republic era. She's displayed like some exotic object, rather than incorporated into the story.

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