Spike Lee’s He Got Game hurls a basketball as far and as high as it can go to demonstrate its metaphorical and magical power in activating the dreams of a disenfranchised race and class. If I find the movie a bit turgid, pretentious, grandiose and about a half-hour too long as a narrative, I can’t resist Mr. Lee’s contagious enthusiasm for the game in the abstract. But then I was rooting for the New York Knicks years before Mr. Lee was born. (Indeed, Mr. Lee cannot know how long I suffered with two Knick centers named Irv Rothenberg and Lee Knorek in one era, and Walter Dukes and Ray Felix in another.)
Denzel Washington, at first almost unrecognizable in a scraggly beard, plays what for him is a character part as Jake Shuttleworth, the convict father of Jesus Shuttleworth (Ray Allen), the biggest high school basketball sensation in the country and the target of recruiting pitches from every basketball-power college from coast to coast. Mr. Allen, an N.B.A. superstar in so-called real life with no previous formal acting experience, is surprisingly effective as a young man with a big chip on his shoulder. And no wonder. His father Jake is doing a long stretch in prison for killing his beloved mother Martha (Lonette McKee).
Why is this basketball phenom named Jesus in the first place? Mr. Lee milks every biblical joke he can out of the name before he has Jake reveal to Jesus that he was named not after Jesus of Nazareth, but after Jake’s hero, Earl (the Pearl) Monroe, who was christened “Jesus” for his miraculous bake-and-shake moves to the basket. But then, Jake (and Mr. Lee) add that the white press had to spoil everything by demeaning Monroe as the “black Jesus.” Sooner or later, Whitey is going to get his in a Spike Lee movie on any pretext whatsoever. Yet, in his opening montage with shots of balls spinning through the air in slow succession to the rousing strains of Aaron Copland’s music, Mr. Lee acknowledges white farm boys and women as participants in the ecstatic celebration of the swoosh sport to end all swoosh sports.
But then the plot goes Faustian with very little suspense to sustain it. The deal is this. The Governor of New York and the warden of Attica offer to reduce Jake’s sentence if he can persuade his son to sign up with the Governor’s alma mater, “Big State.” Ned Beatty as the sleazy warden does everything but hiss as he reads his insincere lines, and sure enough, he ends up repudiating his agreement on a technicality, but again that’s Whitey for you.
Jake’s only problem is that his son hates his guts and would rather his father rot in prison than play for Big State. Do you really suspect for a moment that Jesus will accept any of many crass offers from cartoonish tempters ranging from John Turturro’s cameo gem as Coach Billy Sunday of “Tech U,” a school full of silicone-breasted groupies, to a sleazy sports agent who demands that he jump immediately to the N.B.A. with no college in between. Or will Jesus do the right thing? But not before a father-son one-on-one basketball duel, which Jake wins by losing.
Mr. Lee’s narrative strategy is not exactly linear, but it is tedious just the same. He does avoid the sports cliché of the Big Game so crucial to the heartwarming climax of David Anspaugh’s Hoosiers (1986) with Gene Hackman as a burned-out high school basketball coach with one last flame to light under his sullen white team. There you felt something at the end, despite all the corn husked around the legend of Indiana basketball fever and Larry Bird. At the end of Mr. Lee’s movie, all you feel is the distraction of Mr. Lee’s stylistic exhibitionism, without which, I concede, he might not be regarded as a genius in some quarters.
This Year’s Sleeper Romance
Michael Winterbottom’s Go Now , from the screenplay by Paul Henry Powell III and Jimmy McGovern, though it is marred by more than a few rough patches, ends up being a triumphant affirmation of life and love in the face of the hero’s debilitating encounter with multiple sclerosis. For this alone, Go Now is a welcome change from the New Age angel-of-death tide sweeping across certain sectors of Hollywood moviemaking, which panders to moronically morbid teenagers. Mr. Winterbottom and his scenarists, Mr. Powell and Mr. McGovern, will have none of this premillennial pessimism. Not that they gloss over the crippling and humiliating consequences of this disease on a once physically active working-class man and his relationship with the woman he loves.
When the picture begins, Nick Cameron (Robert Carlyle) enjoys a happy-go-lucky existence as a transplanted Scotsman who makes his living in Bristol, England, as a plasterer and devotes his spare time to a local amateur soccer team. He spends his nights partying and drinking with his teammates at various Bristol working-class watering holes where girls are frequently picked up, but seldom bedded. Nick and his wise-cracking buddy Tony (James Nesbitt) hit the jackpot one evening when they team up with Karen (Juliet Aubrey) and Paula (Sophie Okonedo). Tony and Paula end up having more of a bantering relationship as a kind of biracial Beatrice and Benedick to the more awkwardly expressed but more deeply felt union of Nick and Karen.
The film uses many eccentric stop-motion and cartoon caption devices to speed the story along with all its complex social structure and texture intact. Bristol itself is “used” to the utmost as a distinctive background with its semi-documentary uniqueness. The movie is based on Mr. Powell’s own experiences with M.S.; Mr. McGovern, who wrote Antonia Bird’s Priest (1994) was Mr. Powell’s screenwriting workshop teacher and collaborator on this screenplay.
Mr. Carlyle and Ms. Aubrey are in many ways an odd couple. Even in the period when Nick is still healthy, he is clearly shorter than Karen, and his physical dependency upon her after M.S. strikes is not pleasant to watch, especially when it involves incontinence, catheters and other bodily embarrassments, about which I have had personal experiences of my own that I don’t need to go to the movies to recall. Yet, my biggest problem again was in understanding the often incomprehensible British working-class slang.
Nonetheless, Mr. Carlyle and Ms. Aubrey both provide strong-minded approximations of real people struggling with a medical disaster without comforting illusions and sentimental bromides. Neither Nick nor Karen is an unbelievably noble, generous or heroic person under all the stresses and strains of M.S. Karen makes no bones about her resumption of a sexual relationship with her boss after M.S. leaves Nick permanently impotent. But she refuses to abandon Nick even when he angrily throws her out, and, ultimately, they find a rock of rapprochement that transcends the purely physical and sexual, which is graphically represented at every stage, with something marvelously spiritual.
For his part, Nick triumphs by making his marginal existence less marginal by strenuous effort, and Karen creates an indelible image of womanly compassion and insight by standing patiently in the rain until the seemingly insurmountable barriers between her and Nick are washed away forever. Go Now qualifies as one of the first genuine sleepers of the year with its raw power and poignancy in the service of a great love story. Scorsese’s New York
Lays Claim to Him
As Arthur Miller might say, attention must be paid to Martin Scorsese, who is being honored this year by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, for a career ranging over 30 years with almost 40 titles in his résumé, a fair number of them masterpieces by any standard. So when Mr. Scorsese graciously presented an Oscar for lifetime achievement recently to Stanley Donen, the first thing Mr. Donen said with equal graciousness was that his Oscar should go to Mr. Scorsese. Why then has Mr. Scorsese not yet been honored by the Motion Picture Academy? The New York connection? Woody Allen is more religiously New York and anti-Los Angeles than Mr. Scorsese ever dreamed of being. Yet Oscar has been kinder to Woody than to Marty. Why? Perhaps Mr. Allen’s New York is more sanitized and touristy than Mr. Scorsese’s comparatively mean and profane streets. Whatever the reason, New York’s gain is L.A.’s loss, and on May 4, Martin Scorsese, auteur, director, producer, actor and archivist, among his many gigs, will be cheered by his fellow New Yorkers at Lincoln Center, and for a slew of reasons.