MOVIE REVIEW : Ambitious 'Jason's Lyric' Falls Short of Redemption

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Jason's Lyric" is a terribly earnest melodrama with king-size ambitions. Set in the inner cities of Houston, it bulges with biblical pretension.

Joshua (Bokeem Woodbine) and Jason (Allen Payne) are the Cain and Abel of the piece. We first see them in flashback as two carefree lads romping in the fields with their doting dad (Forest Whitaker). But that was before he was shattered and deranged by Vietnam. In an in-your-face sequence that has more power than anything else in the movie, the father breaks into the family home and attacks his wife (Suzzanne Douglas) and is then shot by one of his young sons.

The memories and guilt surrounding this event have gnarled the boys' lives. Joshua has spent time in prison; Jason, while seemingly hard-working and law-abiding, is plagued by nightmares.

Director Doug McHenry and screenwriter Bobby Smith Jr. frame the story as a redemptive fantasy. Jason, who turns down an out-of-town job promotion because it would leave his mother living alone with Josh, finds his dream woman in the form of Lyric (Jada Pinkett), who works in a soul food restaurant and plays extremely hard-to-get. She has seen too many boyfriends gunned down--her half-brother ("Naughty by Nature's" Treach) is a local gangsta--and she doesn't want any more pain.

Of course, Jason woos her and wins, and their communions are alternately pastoral (lots of soft-focus, outdoorsy, smell-the-roses stuff) and heavy-duty (graphic couplings that seem inserted to boost the film's commercial temperature). The notion that two good-hearted soul mates could thrive in this jungle is, no doubt, important to the film's polemic. But the lovey-dovey material doesn't have much substance; neither does the criminal sequences involving Josh, who is so perpetually out of control that it's a miracle he's able to make it through a day without getting offed.

The filmmakers attempt to temper the good son/bad son plot by making each boy a variation of the other: Jason is supposed to internalize Josh's rage. But Jason is too bland to sustain the comparison, and Josh doesn't transcend his scary trappings. The film seems overextended and unbelievable both as love story and as urban tragedy. There are a few good scenes, such as the birthday homecoming of a drunken Josh, or the sassy-sincere interplay between Lyric and her co-worker/buddy (Lisa Carson). But most of "Jason's Lyric" tries to force its cooked-up sensitivities on us. Greatness is more hard-won than this.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong violence, sexuality, language and drug use. Times guidelines: It includes graphic gunplay, wife-beating, a maiming with a buzz saw and graphic sex.

'Jason's Lyric'

Allen Payne: Jason Alexander

Jada Pinkett: Lyric Greer

Forest Whitaker: Maddog

Bokeem Woodbine: Joshua Alexander

A Gramercy Pictures and Jackson/McHenry company presentation. Director Doug McHenry. Producers Doug McHenry and George Jackson. Executive producers Suzanne Broderick and Clarence Avant. Screenplay by Bobby Smith Jr. Cinematographer Francis Kenny. Editor Andrew Mondshein. Costumes Craig Anthony. Music Afrika and Matt Noble. Production design Simon Dobbin. Set decorator Tessa Posnansky. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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