Movie review: 'She Hate Me'

3 stars (out of 4)

Movie-wise, Spike Lee is a great game-player with a lot of moves. But can even he make a stinging, effective political statement with a comedy about a black male prostitute and his rich lesbian clients? Can Lee expose corporate America and its chicanery--and the post-Clinton era's dubious public fixation on sexual foibles over political morality--by indulging in elaborate film erotic fancies that include porno cartoons with anxious spermatozoa?

Not quite this time with "She Hate Me." A dark comedy about corporate and sexual ethics co-written by Lee with Michael Genet ("Pork Pie"), "She Hate Me" is a daring, entertaining, but somewhat disappointing affair, something of an overreacher despite Lee's usual pyrotechnics and a brilliant cast.

"Hate Me's" protagonist is a yuppie black corporate executive Jack Armstrong--the name once attached to radio's mythical "All-American Boy." As played by Anthony Mackie ("8 Mile") Jack is dedicated, smart, hard-working, fashion-model handsome and, thanks to his sleazy boss Leland Powell (Woody Harrelson) unemployed and branded a whistle-blower for co-operating with a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.

Jack's solution to the problem? The oldest profession. After his bisexual ex-girlfriend, Fatima Goodrich (Kerry Washington), talks him into impregnating both her and her lesbian lover Alex (Dania Ramirez), Fatima hits on the brainstorm of selling Jack's services as a surrogate father to scores of other rich lesbians--a profession for which he seems an absolute natural.

Soon his money problems are over. Other troubles are on the way, however--from the vindictive Powell, from Jack's pragmatic ex-corporate pal Margo (Ellen Barkin), from a congressional committee chaired by Brian Dennehy, from stern Judge Buchanan (Ossie Davis), from Don Angelo Bonasera (John Turturro), a genial Mafia don with a "Godfather" moniker and from Jack's own troubled parents (Jim Brown and Lonette McKee).

"She Hate Me" is fun to watch and fun to think about later; it's chockful of provocative statements about corporate morality, sexual hypocrisy and what's wrong about both today--another gutsy, vibrant, politically hip movie from one of America's most gifted and important filmmakers.

But gay critics who have hectored Lee this time about using stereotypical lesbian portrayals and indulging male fantasies about bisexual romps have a point. "Hate Me" does play at times like an over-inflated sex fantasy.

The real problem with "Hate Me's" sex satire though, may be that it isn't funny enough (the cartoon excepted). I'm also not sure it was a good idea to turn Jack into a prostitute-surrogate father when it actually might have made more sense to split him into two characters: corporate Jack as the pimp and some buddy of his as the surrogate. It's Jack's gargantuan sexual prowess that makes the movie seem like an erotic fantasy--and also makes you wish Lee were spending time with the corporate-scandal side of the plot.

"She Hate Me" is not one of Lee's best--on the level of "Do the Right Thing," "Malcolm X," "Four Little Girls" or his last movie, "The 25th Hour." Like "Bamboozled" (which I prefer), it's a movie which tries to blaze utterly new territory and take dangerous risks, but stumbles because the comedy isn't consistently sharp.

In "Bamboozled," it was hard to make a modern audience laugh at the old racist stereotypes few of them knew first-hand. And here, it's hard to get yocks for a romantic comedy set in an impregnatorium for lesbians. Still, it's easy to warm to a movie that has so many ideas and touches so many bases--and has such a loaded cast, that it can take time to give Turturro a forum for his Brando imitations and Judge Davis chances to thunder from the bench.

Lee may not have another big audience-critical hit until he puts himself as an actor back at the center of one of his movies--I think audiences miss seeing him--but he's seemingly incapable of making a movie that doesn't provoke or amuse. "She Hate Me" does both.

"She Hate Me"

Directed by Spike Lee; written by Michael Genet, Lee; photographed by Matthew Libatique; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; production designed by Brigitte Broch; music by Terence Blanchard; produced by Lee, Preston Holmes, Fernando Sulichin. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:18 . MPAA rating: R (strong graphic sexuality/nudity and a scene of violence).

John Henry "Jack" Armstrong - Anthony Mackie
Fatima Goodrich - Kerry Washington
Margo Chadwick - Ellen Barkin
Simona Bonasera - Monica Bellucci
Armstrong (Father) - Jim Brown
Judge Buchanan - Ossie Davis
Powell - Woody Harrelson
Chairman Church - Brian Dennehy

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