Not everyone can tell a story, and even good storytellers can’t tell all stories equally well. And the most personal stories are often the hardest to convey to an audience that lacks the teller’s intimate connection to the material. And so it is with writer-director Spike Lee’s latest film, “Crooklyn.”
Officially Lee, who co-wrote “Crooklyn” with his sister Joie and his brother Cinque, will say only that the writers “drew some of their inspiration from their own lives.” But interviews have indicated that this 1970s story of four brothers and a sister growing up in the Ft. Greene section of Brooklyn has more than a glancing resemblance to the details of the Lee family’s situation.
For a director like Spike Lee, an adept cinematic polemicist whose best work, from “Do the Right Thing” to “Malcolm X,” has never strayed far from film’s hardest edges, this turn to the fuzzy, non-controversial areas of warm memory and nostalgia is a noticeable departure.
And there is something refreshing about seeing a studio film involved with a group like the Carmichaels, a feisty African American family with concerned and loving parents trying to do the best for their rambunctious kids. And having strong actors like Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo playing teacher Carolyn Carmichael and her jazz musician husband, Woody, can only add power to the mix.
But though this is a situation with potential, not to mention one that the director has a personal stake in, it does not play to Lee’s strengths. Partly as a result, “Crooklyn” has turned out not particularly involving, an undernourished, aimless film that despite occasional moments of emotional connection never gets up a noticeable head of steam.
For one thing, “Crooklyn” does without much of a plot line. Set almost exclusively on the Brooklyn block where the Carmichaels have a brownstone, it is an episodic piece of work, with an unfocused script that adds incident to incident without much connective tissue to tie all of it together.
That block looks to have been a lively and multicultural one, with Italians and Latinos as well as black people getting on one another’s nerves, a chaotic place but one with a heart. The setting is in its own way an age of innocence, when shoplifting was the worst crime and glue-sniffers (one of whom is played by Lee himself) the most dangerous characters.
What the Lee siblings’ script places in this background are situations of the “remember when” variety, like “Remember when the electricity got turned off?” or “Remember when Mom woke us up at 4 a.m. to do the dishes?” While some incidents, like the time oldest son Clinton (Carlton Williams) goes to an NBA championship game instead of his father’s concert, are admittedly based on real incidents, they lack the consistently empathetic touch that would provide the emotional weight and meaning for an audience these situations have for the filmmakers.
Most noticeable in this respect is the interlude when daughter Troy (Zelda Harris) goes to visit a stuffy aunt in Maryland, a situation similar to the one at the center of “The Inkwell.” The entire sequence is filmed with a distorting anamorphic lens, theoretically to emphasize how off-kilter the visit looked to Troy. What it feels like is a concerted attack on the aunt’s bourgeois sensibility that plays more merciless and hostile than perhaps Lee intended.
Where “Crooklyn” is most successful and most involving is in the drawing of individual characters. Woodard is luminous as always as the mother who worries that her family is getting out of control, and Lindo is her match as the father determined to march to no one’s music but his own. Also a pleasure is young Zelda Harris, who brings a fiery spirit to the role of Troy. With characters this alive, it’s a pity that no one was able to build a more convincing film around them, instead of leaving everyone more or less out there on their own.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for “drug content.” Times guidelines: It includes much coarse language and scenes of glue sniffing.
Alfre Woodard: Carolyn
Delroy Lindo: Woody
David Patrick Kelly: Tony Eyes
Zelda Harris: Troy
Carlton Williams: Clinton
A 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks in association with Child Hoods Productions production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Spike Lee. Producer Spike Lee. Executive producer Jon Kilik. Screenplay Joie Susannah Lee & Cinque Lee and Spike Lee. Story by Joie Susannah Lee. Cinematographer Arthur Jafa. Editor Barry Alexander Brown. Costumes Ruth E. Carter. Music Terence Blanchard. Production design Wynn Thomas. Art director Chris Shriver. Set decorator Ted Glass. Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.