Film Reviews

Talk It Up

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.

Girl 6 is the first produced screenplay by award-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. There can be no denying that Parks has a sharp eye for character detail and a sympathetic ear for revealing dialogue. But Lee really should have sent her back for rewrites, or at least ripped a few pages from her final draft. As it stands, the movie makes repeated references to an inner-city tragedy -- a little girl falls down an elevator shaft -- that's meant to serve as some kind of symbol for Judy's own descent into moral darkness (or something like that). At first, this subplot is mildly distracting. Gradually, however, it develops into a major annoyance.

Even more annoying is the way Parks and Lee drag in a foul-mouthed stalker whose sole purpose is to shock Judy out of her life on the wild side. It's not enough that Judy somehow becomes addicted to the cheap thrill of phone sex, to the point that she drives herself to the brink of mental and physical collapse. No, we have to have a psycho pop up to provide a cheaply melodramatic physical threat, to make Judy suffer for her "sins."

Of course, it's quite possible that Spike Lee simply got bored with the subject of phone sex midway through filming and haphazardly grasped at something, or anything, to wrap things up. This wouldn't be the first time Lee's enthusiasm for a plot waned before the closing credits. In the course of Jungle Fever, he obviously lost interest in the interracial romance between Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra and shifted his focus toward the flamboyant crack addict played by Samuel L. Jackson. But at least he focused on something. In Girl 6, he tries to get by on attitude and razzle-dazzle. It doesn't work: the final 30 minutes of the movie seem rushed, slapped together and, at times, nearly incoherent.

The upbeat ending suggests Judy has finally gotten her act together, and is ready to take the worst Hollywood has to offer. Unfortunately, despite Randle's game and sometimes affecting performance, we don't know much more about her character at the movie's end than we do at the very beginning. Like a good phone-sex operator, she's pleasant company, and quite engaging when she wants to be. But she keeps her distance.

Girl 6 is by no means a waste. In the end, however, it feels too much like Spike Lee is marking time, merely keeping his hand in between more substantial projects.

Girl 6. Directed by Spike Lee. With Theresa Randle, Jenifer Lewis and Debi Mazur. Rated R. 109 minutes.

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Joe Leydon