Spike Lee has always made movies like they're going out of style. He packs them with bristling wit and moody drama, with nuanced ideas and ardent diatribes, with visual elegance and bombast. His films are as much essay as cinema, which is both his strength and his limitation.
At his best -- She's Gotta Have It, Crooklyn, 25th Hour -- Lee speaks to us with the eloquence and edge of an impassioned artist who knows what he knows and who believes what he says. He's been angry since the dawn of his career -- not that there's anything wrong with that: There's plenty to be angry about. But in movies like Do the Right Thing and the maligned (but wonderful) Bamboozled, he at least retained enough prodigious vision to make it all cohere.
That doesn't happen in She Hate Me, which feels more like a compilation of loosely related plot lines from a prime-time soap opera. The result is the cinematic equivalent of corned beef on Wonder bread, with mayo. Lee is a superb director of images, ambiance and actors, so She Hate Me is beautifully executed. It has some nice ideas, and it's very sexy (if only in spurts). It's just that Lee's overly stimulated imagination doesn't bring it together in some slightly more credible way.
The central figure of She Hate Me is John Henry "Jack" Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), whose Christian name presages his sexual prowess, and whose sobriquet makes him all-American. He's black and 30, with an MBA and a vice presidency at a pharmaceutical company that's waiting for FDA approval of its breakthrough AIDS vaccine. Then, suddenly, it all falls down when the approval is denied and the company's leading scientist commits suicide, leaving behind documentation of the company's copious corruption.
Why Jack doesn't immediately turn the evidence over to investigators when he becomes (immediately) the company's scapegoat is perhaps the biggest "oh, c'mon" in She Hate Me. But he doesn't, and suddenly he finds himself jobless and worried that his creature comforts are about to vanish. So when his ex-fiancée, Fatima (Kerry Washington), and her lover, Alex (Dania Ramirez), offer him $10,000 each to get them pregnant, he hesitates for a few unconvincing scenes before taking the cash and doing the deeds (sex with Fatima, turkey baster for Alex).
That would all be enough for any movie. But a few days later, Fatima crashes Jack's crib with an entourage of ticking-clock power lesbians of multicultural persuasions. Each will pay $10,000 to get pregnant (the old-fashioned way), and when Jack agrees, each lover is true to her roots: The Chinese woman has them eat chicken feet during sex to conceive a son, the nice Jewish girl wants to see the goods before she buys anything, the saucy black chick with blond hair talks dirty and rips off her shirt, and the demure Indian clearly knows nothing about the Kama Sutra.
Jack's loving upscale family lives all together in a stunning New York brownstone: a brother with a wife and kid, a gentle father (Jim Brown) who's very sick with diabetes, a sage mother who's stressed out from caring for him. Later, when word of Jack's new sideline gets around, he's visited by a Mafia don's lesbian daughter (Monica Belluci) who wants to have his baby -- with the gradual approval of her progressive father (John Turturro, perfect as always).
That, of course, is all too much, and way too contrived to make points. Race is not essential to She Hate Me, except that Lee -- and it's something worth doing, just not like this -- revolves his film around a burgeoning black upper-middle-class. He wants to explore the issue of corporate scandal, but he mixes it up with the issue of race (are any of the Enron criminals black?). He's interested in family and responsibility, but having Jack impregnate every fashionable lesbian in Manhattan is an abysmal metaphor for fatherless black families. He wants to question Jack's Wharton School sense of entitlement. So why not have Jack succumb to irrational anxiety when he loses his job rather than to such far-fetched venereal avarice?
And certainly Lee must be joking (except that he isn't) by positioning Jack as another Frank Wills, the black security guard who discovered the Watergate burglars, and who died poor and jobless at age 52 (but without Jack's degree from Wharton).
We're left with a movie that's more undisciplined than ambitious, with a lower quotient of insight than usual from its creator, and a higher quotient of rampant male fantasy. (Two dozen lesbians all begging for sex? Sheeeeee-it!) The animated sperm, all with Jack's face, could have worked. But Lee can't find the tone to mesh his drama with his humor: The title sequence -- with a giant dollar bill fluttering in the breeze like a flag, as if greed is the new patriotism -- promises a level of social satire that never materializes.
The movie's most piquant and subtle exchange comes between Jack and Margo (Ellen Barkin), an exec at his company who later sees the light. Before she does, she tells the soon-to-be-arrested Jack, "This isn't about race, and you know it." He replies dryly: "I know. It's about who goes to prison and who doesn't." Lee leaves it up to us to decide whether there's a difference.