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Memphis Flyer Communal Comedy

Comedian Steve Harvey shines in Spike Lee's latest joint.

By Chris Herrington

AUGUST 28, 2000:  Directed by Spike Lee on what seems like a weekend holiday, The Original Kings of Comedy is like an extended episode of HBO's Def Comedy Jam, and if it seems a little small screen as recorded on dingy digital video, it doesn't take long to figure out why this film works a whole lot better in a theater than it would as a cable special -- provided you're seeing it under ideal circumstances.

A documentary of a Charlotte, North Carolina, stop on an African-American comedy revue tour that has been one of the hottest arena tickets in the country for the last couple of years while flying beneath the mainstream (read "white") radar, The Original Kings of Comedy is most of all a celebration of a communal event and culture. Early on, when comedian Steve Harvey accuses the (on-screen) audience of being "country," Lee cuts to pre-show video footage of grinning audience members decked out in all manner of tacky regalia, but the tone is loving, not mocking. By judicially and carefully blending audience reaction shots with the performers on stage, Lee subtly reinforces the sense of interaction in the arena, and manages to make the film audience feel like they're part of the action as well. The Original Kings of Comedy is that rare movie that is better with a vocal audience, and seeing it with a full theater of involved viewers is a joy.

Of the four "kings," master of ceremonies Steve Harvey clearly stands out. The observant, perpetually exasperated Harvey proves to be a marvelous performer, his deceptively down-home, preacherly delivery masking an instinctive intelligence and risky edge. "You ever been to a hip-hop show?" the decidedly old-school Harvey asks the audience at one point. "They got too many goddamn instructions," he explains, and then launches into the standard list of MC exhortations familiar to anyone who has ever endured a particularly lame hip-hop concert: say ho!, put your hands in the air, wave 'em like you just don't care, everybody scream! Harvey is not amused. "I paid $38.50. You scream. I came here to see the damn show. I didn't come to help out." And Harvey is particularly blunt on the subject of Titanic ("White people always running to jump on some bullshit"), that tale of the brave, tragic demise of so many rich white folks. "We all know how this gonna end," Harvey says, the slightest hint of menace beneath his nice guy demeanor. "Bring on the water. Let's drown these people already."

During one segment, Harvey plays a medley of Seventies soul songs after complaining that "hip-hop has given up on love." This seems more like something that would happen at someone's home than during a comedy concert at a huge arena, but it's not only the film's greatest moment; it's one of the most rapturous sequences to be found at the cinema this year, and finer music criticism than anything I've seen on the page lately. Harvey's facial expressions and physical movements (he doesn't so much dance as react -- as though he's completely ceded control of his body to the emotion and excitement the music provokes) so clearly and joyously communicate the wonder of the music that I got swept up in a set of songs (from Earth, Wind, and Fire and Lenny Williams) that I would never choose as the apex of soul.

Harvey is never less than wonderful, but his fellow Kings are more of a mixed bag. D.L. Hughley is seemingly the youngest of the bunch, and the least impressive. His personality is the most self-involved and the least generous, and when he moves to poking fun at the audience, he conveys none of the timing or good-natured humor of Harvey, but comes off as harsh and desperate. The rotund Cedric the Entertainer is the most accomplished physical comedian and has the most jovial personality. But the best of the rest is clearly Bernie Mac, a bug-eyed bully whose work contains a hint of danger and of truth. He's the edgiest of the bunch and in full scary mode he is reminiscent of Samuel Jackson's "Gator" in Lee's Jungle Fever -- you don't know whether to laugh, take pity, or be afraid. And when he talks about taking custody of his sister's three young children -- "She had some drug problems," he explains. "You know how that is." -- he moves in the kind of frighteningly autobiographical territory that Richard Pryor took us into.

For the most part, these Kings aren't in the same class as true kings of African-American comedy like the brilliant Pryor or much more socially aware Chris Rock. And the material can get a little shopworn: What Ever Happened to Big Momma? and Those Crazy White Folks are standard topics (though maybe the latter never really gets old). But I can't remember the last time I laughed as often or loud in a movie theater, or the last time a full crowd laughed right along with me.

Beating the upcoming Hannibal to the punch, The Cell takes the rough outline of The Silence of the Lambs (the race against time to save a young woman held prisoner by a serial killer; the mental pas de deux between a female agent/psychologist and a serial killer) and filters it through a postmodern visual style more akin to recent millennial movies like Fight Club, The Matrix, and Being John Malkovich than the more classically directed Lambs.

The feature directoral debut of music video and commercial veteran Tarsem Singh, The Cell is an odd but interesting conflation of styles -- part science fiction, part police procedural; part grandiose fantasy, part gritty genre movie. Proving once again that she's a lot better off on the big screen than in a recording studio, Jennifer Lopez portrays a child psychologist who has mastered an experimental procedure that allows her to enter the mental world of comatose patients, a procedure that she ends up performing on a recently captured serial killer in order to uncover the whereabouts of a woman he's kidnapped.

I find the trend of serial killer chic (see the disgusting Kiss the Girls, or don't) that has infected Hollywood in the decade since The Silence of the Lambs to be so repulsive that The Cell was on a very short leash for me at the beginning. But despite being extremely graphic in parts, it never quite seems exploitative, and unlike the at least morally questionable Lambs, it never seems to be trying to turn its monster into some kind of rock star. The Cell's conclusions may be the stuff of pop psychology, but at least it treats all of its characters as realistic human beings, and makes the attempt to understand its killer's psyche without making him attractive or making his crimes seem like standard movie villainy.

The film's odd, endearing feel is further cemented by the casting, which is full of edgy, intriguing actors from the margins of Hollywood. Vince Vaughn, looking strung-out and sleazy, plays the FBI agent in charge of the case while the serial killer is played by the always compelling Vincent D'Onofrio (The Whole Wide World, the forthcoming Steal This Movie). Lopez's partners are Marianne Jean-Baptiste (the black daughter in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies) and Dylan Baker (the pedophile in Todd Solandz's Happiness).

The heart of the film is the elaborate exploration of the killer's mind, which allows Singh (most famous for directing R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" video) to really cut loose visually, constructing a lengthy, arty music video sans music. These scenes are postmodern in the sense that Singh's universe of the mind seems like such a bricolage: Salvador Dali's surrealist landscapes; the dark, detailed puppet animation of the Brothers Quay; Terry Gilliam's retro-futurism; abstract animation a la 2001: A Space Odyssey; tarot cards, and religious iconography (Catholic and Hindu, it seems). Yet, despite being such a compendium of references, The Cell ends up a whole that is its own creation. And, in any event, devotees of weird, eye-popping visual design won't want to miss it.

"Meet Trixie Zurbo, a one-of-a-kind blue-collar gumshoe." So begins the production notes for Trixie, the latest film from writer/director Alan Rudolph (Afterglow, Breakfast of Champions), who keeps churning them out despite only sporadic success. With the great Emily Watson trapped in the title role as a dimwitted casino detective sniffing out corruption amid the stupidest cast of characters in recent memory, Trixie might be a disaster if it weren't so inconsequential to begin with.

Described by Rudolph as "screwball noir," Trixie comes off like a second-rate Woody Allen comedy without the self-loathing and class bigotry, but also without any of the wit. The "joke" is that the 5th-grade-educated Trixie is a font of malapropisms, which she spouts from first moment to last: "It's time to fish or get off the pot," "You mean, do I have an ace up my hole?" "Your life is going to hell in a handbag," "It's time to swallow the bullet," "Green behind the ears." Had enough yet?

Watson, who had the dubious fortune of beginning her film career with one of the big screen's most extraordinary performances, as the woman-child Bess in Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves, is a trooper, but there's no getting around this script or character. And Nick Nolte gives a game performance as a Newt Gingrich-like senator. But Dermot Mulroney, as Trixie's love interest, proves what many of us suspected after his wooden turn in My Best Friend's Wedding: He's about the least interesting actor on the planet.

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