Josie and the Pussycats; Morgan Freeman in Along Came a Spider

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


Remember
the Spice Girls? Their bawdy individuality is what’s missing from Josie
and the Pussycats
, a movie so caught up in synergy–the new evil of the
commercial world–that it cannot adequately spoof the consumerism it worships.
This comic book/tv cartoon adaptation presents Rachael Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson
and Tara Reid as a girl rock band turned into the human clones that now define
mainstream pop. It’s nothing to laugh about, especially when every scene
contains product placement.

Not
even as lively as Spice World (girl pop has declined drastically in the
past three years), Josie and the Pussycats isn’t a very good product
after all. It knowingly insults the teen adult it exploits and the adult audience
it cynically panders to by making explicit the Mobius-strip surrealism of interwoven
commerce. (The ploy might work if all the products had made-up, jokey names rather
than showing off the actual stultifying logos.) Parker Posey provides the one
amusing element as a rapacious record company exec with monomaniacal plans. A
reminder of when individuality used to be prized in pop, she’s like a good
pop record–quickly trashed.

 

Along
Came a Spider
Directed
by Lee Tamahori

Can
Morgan Freeman become a superstar? That’s the only genuine suspense in Along
Came a Spider
. It’s clear from his participation as coproducer that he
considers this prequel to 1997’s Kiss the Girls his ticket to the
big time and a way to achieve and improve the Denzel effect–a black actor
who can reach a wide, liberal public by means of a conventional narrative with
humanist appeal. Alex Cross, the forensic psychologist Morgan Freeman plays in
the film, is described as "a damaged cop." But that’s said by a
character who hasn’t yet learned how wonderful Cross is. An informed audience
of moviegoers presumably will have followed Cross here after Freeman first essayed
the part in Kiss the Girls. They know that Cross is a paradigm of judgment
and empathy combining Sherlock Holmesian-Sigmund Freudian hunches.

A
single scene shows Cross’ private life, in conversation with his wife, played
by Anna Maria Horsford. ("Don’t you know forgiving yourself is the one
thing a person cannot do?") Among Along Came a Spider’s other
dramatic setups, that’s an obvious attempt to turn Freeman into a more profound
genre hero by making him bear mankind’s cross the way he did in Seven.
It was in Seven that Freeman finally transcended his career-making roles
in Street Smart and Driving Miss Daisy (leaving the meretricious
black stereotypes to others) and took on fatherly sagacity–a rare opportunity
to display virtues Hollywood could only sanction in the midst of Seven’s
moral chaos or the apocalyptic threat of Deep Impact, where he played the
last president of the United States. Freeman’s quiet superheroism in the
Alex Cross assignments involved tracking down a serial killer in Kiss the Girls
and here follows a master criminal’s clues to rescue the kidnapped daughter
of a politician. The contrivances–including elaborate cover-ups, wild goose
chases and FBI and local precinct turf wars–are typical skull-stuffing. (The
heavily advertised "shock" ending makes it difficult to discuss details;
just know that the climax is less a surprise and more of an illogical trick anyway.)
It’s only the spectacle of Freeman dizzily maneuvering around plot holes
that holds interest. Can he turn a sow’s ear into Vertigo?

First
Freeman has to overcome traditional Hollywood resistance to portraying heroic
black intelligence. Describing Cross as "damaged" complicates his saintliness
by making him seem psychologically dubious–or as morally gray as the movie’s
twisted-yet-pathetic villain. This creditable approach to characterization winds
up half-assed because Along Came a Spider repeatedly ignores all character
complication for the simplicity of providing Freeman with his own Hollywood franchise
vehicle. Cross is always seen scoring points on the other investigators, including
Jezzie (Monica Potter), the young blonde Secret Service agent; it’s through
her ineptitude that the kidnapping happened and her tremulousness solicits Cross’
compassion. The opening sequence, detailing the source of Cross’ "damage,"
features a profane, wildly overamped criminal investigation in which a female
police colleague entraps a suspected serial killer yet ends up in a fatal, cliff-hanging
accident while Cross looks on helplessly. It’s a serviceable setup, repeating
the prologue in Vertigo with some promise. Certainly Freeman is up to James
Stewart’s fine sensitivity (Cross worries over his own guilt, develops a
morbid complex, hides from the world even while shutting out his wife). There’s
a good chance that Freeman and his chosen director Lee Tamahori might break through
the detective movie format just as Stewart and Hitchcock did, and it comes down
to Freeman’s soothing voice and the pained, incredulous expressions on his
face.

Freeman
offers soulfulness where Denzel Washington offers sex (or at least the hint of
sex that became a false lead in the romantically segregated The Pelican Brief).
And though Cross almost achieves Maigret-like status, suggesting a figure who
reflects the tensions of his community (at least more so than Denzel’s phony
intensity in Devil in a Blue Dress), his soulfulness gets poured into a
void. Except for the moment Cross encounters special agent Kyle Craig (Jay O.
Sanders), whose appearance recalls his double cross in Kiss the Girls (this
flash-forward frisson has a more humane effect than anything in the meaningless,
overwrought Memento), there’s little sense of Cross traversing recognizable
social complications. In the best scene, Cross listens to the bad guy’s incoherent
ravings (Michael Wincott doing his usual compelling freakiness). When this cipher
alludes to unspoken racial tension with a bizarre pun ("A mind is a terrible
thing"), Freeman stares back at him with cold, unforgettable contempt. Some
invisible line has been trespassed, and you shiver at the complex of offended
politics and politesse that Freeman summons up.

One
would expect more of the same from Tamahori, the director of 1995’s powerful
Maori melodrama Once Were Warriors. But when few blacks (or political awareness)
intrude upon Along Came a Spider’s social investigation, the threat
of banality is the heaviest cross that pop star Freeman has to bear. He has unavoidably
assumed an updated version of the Supernegro mantel that once belonged to Sidney
Poitier. For almost any other actor, that would be a groaning burden, but it is
precisely Freeman’s age and gravity, letting Cross’ intellect take precedence
over guns and fists, that at times connects Along Came a Spider to Poitier’s
unsurpassed cultural significance–the phenomenon of a black movie star actually
corresponding with generalized social presumptions. Cross’ contemplative
manner, his calm, mature movements achieve social rapprochement that’s become
impossible for the trendy, hyped-up, fake aggression of younger black stars (Chris
Rock in Down to Earth, DMX in Exit Wounds say nothing to anyone).
The way Freeman’s Cross sustains black interaction with the white world–even
symbolically–achieves what Freeman has long been ingenuous about articulating,
but that was magnificently apparent when he jump-started the 1980 Brubaker
as the wild-haired prisoner in solitary singing "Respect" in Robert
Redford’s face: now as then he maintains personal (and group) integrity.

Tamahori,
who is also struggling for career dignity as a director, works with thoughtful,
stylish proficiency that raises the level of this routine actioner. But Along
Came a Spider
loses character richness when, instead, it finally emphasizes
noise, superficial intrigue and–in the attempt to be tasteful–a curiously
bloodless unease. Spider’s formulaic script (by Marc Moss) prevents
Tamahori from doing more than making nodding acknowledgment of better films. Vertigo
and De Palma’s Blow Out (emulated in a train station chase sequence)
become crutches for Freeman and Tamahori in their determined opposition to the
most stubborn Hollywood hegemonies–evident in the depiction of women and
the pigeonholing of black men. Cross’ commiseration with Jezzie contrasts
the interracial inanities of Denzel and Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief
and Samuel L. Jackson’s white-girl flirtation in 187. Those stereotypes
can barely be eradicated without radical subversion (though there’s subversive
wit in how Potter’s uncanny resemblance to Julia Roberts is used here to
suggest a perverse Julia Roberts). As if deliberating replaying (and critiquing)
the self-righteousness of those awful films, Freeman and Tamahori surpass gender
and racial diffidence for scenes of actual communication.

Along
Came a Spider
isn’t daring enough to go deeply into Cross’ (or the
filmmakers’ own) sense of guilt. Didn’t they learn anything from the
recent reissue of Vertigo? Freeman and Tamahori need to go further with
their own truth rather than dressing up action flick nonsense. The violent narrative
route taken to heal Cross of his psychological "damage" simply fills
a quota of killing and murder and malaise as entertainment. Hollywood doesn’t
trust being intense without being gruesome; the past decade of Silence of the
Lambs
clones has made us expect mayhem and gore when watching a "thriller."
But without the astonishment or psychological insight that used to characterize
film noir, it’s just run-of-the-mill, time-killing Grand Guignol.

Spider’s
plot is a ruse for our culture’s mess. Audiences seek to be shocked by their
fears (because they’re essentially past being shocked). And noir thrillers
used to help us understand our insecurities and instability, but now those are
just opportunities for decadent delectation. That’s what you get in the machinations
of Memento (an enervating, overlong rip of both Chris Marker’s La
Jetee
and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal that gussies up our move away
from personal responsibility); and it explains the unfathomable critical acclaim
for the cross-section of Mexico’s violence and greed in Amores Perros
three implausible, interlocking stories (basically, Third World decadence for
NAFTA snobs). It’s Morgan Freeman’s way of carrying his artistic responsibility
that makes even the wack Along Came a Spider preferable to both those movies.
"You do what you are," Cross tells Jezzie. And Freeman adds profundity
when he explains, "You’re born with a gift or you get good at something
along the way. You don’t betray your gift. If you do, you betray yourself."
That’s not standard cop talk, it’s an artist’s credo.

 

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