Spike Lee recently told an interviewer he's the cinematic incarnation of the acrobats who used to spin plates atop sticks on The Ed Sullivan Show. His movies have a dozen story lines whirling at once. And just when one seems ready to topple from neglect, Lee gives it a tweak and it stays aloft.
Writer-director-producer-actor Lee's latest movie, Jungle Fever, is his most adroit balancing act to date. But for all its technical prowess, perfectly modulated performances and meticulously crafted subplots, it remains cold at the core; a collage of urban angst that touches on myriad social ills without adequately illuminating its central theme.
Jungle Fever concerns miscegenation, the mixing of the races. Flipper (Wesley Snipes), an African-American architect living with his light-skinned wife and daughter in a gentrified section of Harlem, has an affair with his Italian-American secretary, Angie (Annabella Sciorra). She comes from Bensonhurst, where she lives with her racist father and brothers.
Angie has a boyfriend, Paulie, a genial, liberal-minded fellow who cares for his widowed father atop their coffee shop that serves as a hangout for the local ne'er-do-wells.
Paulie (John Turturro) wants out of Bensonhurst, the Brooklyn community where black teen Yusuf K. Hawkins was killed in 1989 because he was thought to be dating a white woman. Angie wants out, too. She hates her existence as a virtuous daughter and a subservient surrogate mother, cooking meals for louts crowded around the TV.
One evening, Angie works late in order to avoid preparing dinner for her family. She shares Chinese carry-out with Flipper, who's tidying up a few projects. After a brief mention that he's never cheated on his wife, Flipper makes the moves.
The ease of the seduction is Lee's first misstep. Only days before, Flipper was complaining to the firm's white owners that he had requested an African-American secretary. He didn't want an Italian-American working for him.
And, while Angie is clearly bored with Paulie, there seems to be precious little magnetism between her and Flipper.
The motivation in Lee's story is racial lust _ jungle fever _ in which white women want to discover whether black men are sexually superior and black men strive for the ultimate conquest, domination of porcelain-skinned women.
Lee cuts to the heart of society's racial myths and mythology while cataloging the ripple effect of this single act.
Flipper and Angie tell their most trusted confidants about their fledgling affair. Each is betrayed. Both witness their worlds crumble as their families learn of their infidelity.
Within a matter of weeks, they find themselves cohabitating. Not out of love, but necessity, as outcasts of their respective societies.
What's lacking in Flipper and Angie's relationship, or in Lee's portrayal of it, is their incentive to keep together when their worlds fall apart. So many subplots run through Jungle Fever that Angie and Flipper seem better developed as individuals than as a couple. They never attain a genuine intimacy.
Lee's intent is to paint a panoramic social tableau depicting the politics of race, class, religion and drugs. Individual scenes work brilliantly, yet Jungle Fever never achieves the emotional fervor of Do the Right Thing, Lee's drama set in an Italian-American run pizzeria in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Jungle Fever is difficult to watch. Its humor is overwhelmed by conflict and tension; these are passionate people who argue about whatever touches their existence.
Aside from the interracial romance, Flipper is having trouble at work. He quits, early on, because his firm's owners refuse to make him a partner.
Flipper is harassed by his crack addict elder brother, Gator (Samuel L. Jackson), who threatens to rob and steal if he isn't given cash. And Flipper is on tenuous footing with his mother (Ruby Dee) and father (Ossie Davis), a former preacher apparently defrocked for his own philandering.
Lee sometimes abandons Flipper and Angie altogether, recording Gator's visits to his parents' brownstone or Paulie as he argues with the locals and his father (Anthony Quinn) over his attraction for a black woman.
The movie's best scene doesn't even feature Flipper or Angie, but Flipper's wife, Drew (Lonette McKee), as she talks with four girlfriends about the lack of faithful black men and why white women try to steal them. Her frustration is echoed by Flipper's father who recounts how white plantation owners raped their slaves while their wives lay alone in bed, perhaps fantacizing about the mystery and physical strength of black men.
Long criticized for his failure to address drug abuse in the black community, Lee also creates harrowing sequences on the street and in a cavernous crack den nicknamed the Taj Mahal.
Yet, the complexity and weight of the topics addressed in Jungle Fever proves too much for Lee's opus. Potentially more explosive than Do The Right Thing, Lee's Jungle Fever shares to its final frame the problems inherent to his School Daze.
The movie is too unwieldy and densely packed. The superb performances by Snipes, Sciorra, McKee, Turturro and Jackson can't overcome its sprawling nature.
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Spike Lee, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Samuel L. Jackson, Lonette McKee, John Turturro, Frank Vincent, Anthony Quinn
Screenplay: Spike Lee
Rating: R; violence, profanity, sexual situations, drug usage
Running time: 133 minutes