Spike Lee: artist or entertainer?

The Inside Man
Directed by Spike Lee | Universal | 129 minutes
Starring: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe

Spike Lee on the set with Willem Dafoe and Denzel Washington. Several movies this March brought to the fore yet again the tension between supply and demand at the box office -- the supply of seedy R-rated films and the demand for family-friendly flicks. Last weekend, Basic Instinct 2, the sequel to a semi-pornographic lesbian murder movie of yesteryear, flopped in the US market on its opening weekend, while Ice Age 2: Meltdown, a weak and aimless computer-generated sequel to a clever original, made the spring movie market seem like summer blockbuster season. Ice Age 2 earned US$68 million on its opening weekend; while Basic Instinct 2 made only $3.2 million.  Why are family films in such short supply when clearly the demand for them is far higher than for the numerous R-rated films released each month?

Michael Medved, nationally syndicated talk radio host and long-time movie critic, had some harsh words to explain this phenomenon in an interview with MercatorNet:

The answer is counter-intuitive, but profound: most film-makers care even more about the respect of their peers than they do about hundred-million dollar grosses. This year's Oscar nominees represent a case in point, with the industry choosing to honour edgy, dark, R-rated fare with limited box office success. The leaders of the industry have come to see themselves as artists, rather than entertainers, and they fail to attach appropriate value to the artistry involved in family-friendly fare.
Perhaps that may shed some light on another film released this March, The Inside Man. Spike Lee, hailed as one of cinema’s modern masters, has scored a middling success at the box office with this story of a New York City bank heist starring Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, and Clive Owen.

Lee has a lot riding on this film. It is his first feature-length film since the wretched flop She Hate Me, which made an embarrassing $366,000 in the US. Trashed almost unanimously by the critics, She Hate Me was a schizophrenic film packed with hot button politics and excessive raunch which challenged audiences with multiple story lines and promiscuous Manhattan lesbians. The Inside Man seems to be a controlled apology for that crude madness. Unfortunately the result is mediocre and unoriginal. Why?

It ought to be a success. It has all of Lee’s signature motifs: the triumphal New York City montage, the tough New Yorker banter, and the zany, racially-charged jokes that evoke an awkward chuckle from audiences. The film seems disciplined and determined to bottle the old magic. But this time around Lee tried to play it safe at the box office, favouring conventional movie-making instead of challenging audiences with another arty film.

That's why Lee, who normally festoons his films’ posters and trailers with his name and “A Spike Lee Joint” production logo, has kept a low profile. Big-name actors are selling the film for him this time, although, with the exception of Denzel Washington, who has starred in many of his films (Malcom X, He Got Game), Lee has avoided them in the past.

A conventional pairAs usual, Washington is terrific as a morally chequered cop with an itch for promotion. Jodie Foster plays a ruthless and tarty consultant with a foggy job description. She first appears helping Bin Laden’s nephew grease the wheels of Manhattan politics so that he can buy a townhouse on the island. But whether it’s the script or Foster, her biting retorts fail to impress and her jokes too often misfire. Clive Owen believably plays a mastermind thief, though the role is limited as his character wears a mask and sunglasses for nearly the whole film.

The cliches are everywhere. What other characters does a success at the box office need? An old school, big-name actor for the older set: Christopher Plummer, an über-rich, silver-haired bank executive. Sadly, with all due respect to a master of the silver screen, age has robbed Plummer of believability. A success also needs a cult figure for film buffs and kitsch lovers: Willem Dafoe. Dafoe has broken into the mainstream with hits like Spiderman, but he won cult status in roles like the homosexual detective in the underground film Boondock Saints. Lee has cast him as an overeager SWAT team leader, who has trouble cooperating with Washington’s thinking man cop.

But the tension between the savvy cop and the hard-headed SWAT leader is a canned trope from old detective shows. Washington gets a talking-to from the police chief about his neck being on the line. The partners, while waiting in a suspect’s office, are caught like Columbo, nosing through the bookshelves. Lee even includes the typical scene of corrupt power brokers dining out who are interrupted and embarrassed by the just cop with the law on his side.

Numerous flash forwards reveal the central twist of the heist, but that doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of watching the plan unfold. There are some strange scenes that depict what characters speculate may or may not happen, as in movies like The Usual Suspects and Clue. Unfortunately, The Inside Man lacks any climax and it fizzles out to a predictable conclusion. Still, what is predictable and familiar can be entertaining.

What were not entertaining were the awkward R-rated sexual conversations which added little. It was a bit too much like She Hate Me. Lee even showcases a scene with particularly crude language and another with hostages in their underwear. Perhaps he could not bear making a conventional cop drama. Instead, he had to smut it up and add meaningless layers of sexuality to what was meaningless enough as a formulaic heist film. While these flourishes are meant to give it maturity and artistic texture, in the end they dilute a decent genre film that could have been appreciated by a wider audience.

What goes on inside Spike Lee's head? The Inside Man could have been an entertaining, inoffensive blockbuster with a wide appeal. But it failed because the tug of the modern artist who wants to be known, to stand before his audience and to challenge them is just too strong. After all, Spike Lee is an American film artist, an auteur, not a mere entertainer.

Perhaps Michael Medved is right. Perhaps film makers do care more about impressing each other than impressing paying customers. As he told MercatorNet, “Hollywood could benefit from more enlightened greed that helps to reconnect a troubled niche industry with the American mainstream.” Lee should look at the box office receipts from Ice Age 2. That film has no plot, weak characters, and lousy writing. It is saved only by a few brief sight gags. But even though Spike Lee’s star-studded film has been in the theatres a week longer, PG-rated Ice Age 2 has made $58 million more. If the film-makers’ artist/entertainer divide continues to grow, audiences may wake up one day and say of Spike Lee, “He Hate Me.”

Matthew Mehan is US Editor of MercatorNet.


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