When I began this project, I singled out Spike Lee as a filmmaker I'd be writing extensively about, because his weaknesses and strengths as a filmmaker are so inextricably linked. In my introduction, I argued that the very qualities that make Lee such an important and vital filmmaker–audacity, conviction, fearlessness, ambition, vision, a seeming indifference to commercial considerations, and a burning hunger to comment insightfully on the most pressing issues of our time–also make him one of the most prolific creators of terrible movies the world has known.
Since spewing fuzzily digitized vitriol in every direction with 2000's Bamboozled Lee has been uncharacteristically restrained this decade, alternating between revered documentaries like The Original Kings of Comedy and When the Levees Broke); television and commercial work; and brilliant studio projects like 2002's The 25th Hour and last year's masterful caper film Inside Man, which is about as perfect as genre filmmaking gets, yet is full of wonderful Spike Lee New York moments. So it's almost a relief that Lee can still conjure up a movie as crazy, ill-conceived, and monumentally wrong as 2004's She Hate Me, which encapsulates everything that's wrong about Lee while simultaneously boasting many of the virtues I listed above. She Hate Me is many things, most of them god-awful. But gutless, generic, or safe it's not.
Perhaps even more than Tom Laughlin, Lee embodies an archetype I like to call "The Morning Paper Auteur," a filmmaker who picks up the morning paper, grows more enraged about each article he reads, and decides to make movies that forthrightly address every social ill in the known universe. In this case, Lee would glance at the morning paper and grouse, "Look at all the craziness out there: Enron, whistleblowers under fire, corporate chicanery as far as the eye can see, lesbians having babies while black men struggle in corporate America, untraditional families, organized crime, white collar crime. It's a goddamned shame. I'm gonna make a movie about all of it! All of it! It will be my greatest opus to date!"
In She Hate Me, Lee consequently spouts off on just about everything–race, class, sex, gender, money, corporations, sexuality, and much, much more–in his characteristically half-cocked fashion. The film is about pretty much everything, ever, since time began, but its primary two strands involve brooding hero Anthony Mackie's attempts to bring down a corrupt pharmaceutical corporation involved in deceptive trade practices and Mackie's subsequent post-termination gig impregnating an endless procession of lipstick lesbians for $10,000 a pop.
Lee and co-screenwriter Michael Genet no doubt envisioned the film's premise as a provocative platform on which to discuss the intersection of money and sexuality, but it plays more like the film adaptation of the most pretentious, overloaded "Letter to Penthouse ever written.
I can see it now: "Dear Penthouse, I never thought anything like this would happen to me, but when I was laid off from my job as a hotshot drug company executive for being a courageous whistle-blower, a foxy ex with a bod to die for came to me with a most sexsational proposition. She wanted me to impregnate her hot lesbian friends for $10,000 a pop! And here's the really saucy part: I had to deliver the sperm the old-fashioned way, via a sextacular romp in the hay! And they were all stone cold super-foxes, at least at the beginning"
Mackie's wildly orgasmic customers clearly dig fucking him. This, of course, makes all the sense in the world. For if there's one thing lesbians have been known to enjoy, it's having sex with men. It's almost as if lesbians are, by definition, people who enjoy having sex with members of the opposite sex. Or maybe I'm getting things backwards. Spike Lee will do that to you.
She Hate Me has something meandering, shrill, and semi-coherent to say about many things, which makes it all the more inexplicable that nobody seems to make much of rich, successful businesswomen paying $10,000 apiece to ensure that their child will be the product of two oppressed minorities: a lesbian and a black man. This most race-conscious of filmmakers sure picked a curious time to grow color-blind.
She Hate Me is sufferable in large part because Lee remains a confident, even elegant visual stylist, even when his film flies madly off the rails just after the opening credits, which feature a hokey sight gag of a three-dollar bill stamped with George Bush's shit-eating grin and Enron's logo. Terence Blanchard's lovely score undercuts the stiff sermonizing and raunchy sex comedy and Matthew Libatique's cinematography is moody and sophisticated even as Lee's storytelling is simplistic and reductive.
She Hates Me oscillates wildly between dour seriousness and glib cheekiness. Lee cuts to animation of happy little sperm bearing Mackie's face so often, it sometimes feels like he's laying the groundwork for an animated televised spin-off (The Fantastical Adventures of Anthony Mackie's Super Sperm!) to run before Bamboozled Babies and Crooklyn Kids) on a Saturday Morning block on Lee's cable channel, Spike TV. I must say though that the programming on Spike TV is surprisingly apolitical and non-incendiary considering the man behind it. Or maybe I'm just hopelessly confused.
Such fanciful touches make She Hate Me playful, even goofy, without being particularly funny. The less said about Paula Jai Parker's grotesque caricature of Li'l Kim, Brian Dennehy's Foghorn Leghorn-like right-wing Senator and John Turturro's bewildering turn as Monica Bellucci's mob-boss dad, the better. Then there are a pair of Watergate flashbacks–one fanciful, one less so–that perfectly embody the film's epic overreaching.
With She Hate Me, Lee makes a lot of statements of the half-baked and ill-thought-out variety. Now that he's gotten it out of his system, he can hopefully go back to making movies. As 25th Hour and The Inside Man indelibly confirm, he can be pretty fucking good at that. In She Hate Me, the message swallows up the movie–which, to borrow a Krusty The Clownism, does not, in fact, add up to the tightest 138 minutes in show business.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure