Over the past few decades, the number and variety of theatrically distributed American films have been drastically reduced, due to escalating budgets, fierce competition, and the prohibitive expense of marketing and distributing movies. As a result, major studios tend to play it extremely safe, avoiding the peculiar and the non-commercial. But every once in a while, an aberration like 1992's bizarre anachronism Newsies will slip through the system. A work of astounding commercial miscalculation that has developed a substantial cult following, Newsies combines a subject that often spells box-office poison (the plight of exploited laborers and their efforts to organize) with a genre that hasn't been in vogue for many decades (the psychotically upbeat period musical). Essentially The Labor Conflict Follies Of 1899, Newsies casts Christian Bale as a lovable street urchin with a troubled past who dreams of leaving behind the teeming, crowded streets of New York for Santa Fe. A street-smart lug with a heart of gold, Bale works as a newspaper boy, singing and dancing his troubles away while gyrating through patently artificial sets with youngsters stuck in that awkward stage between playing the orphans of Oliver! and the hoods of West Side Story. Bale and his musical cohorts soon become radicals, as their cruel boss Joseph Pulitzer (Robert Duvall, in perhaps the worst performance of his career) raises the price newsies must pay for their papers. Infuriated by his boss' hubris, Bale becomes a leader of the nascent newsies-rights movement, which pits the singing, dancing forces of good against the not so musically inclined forces of sneering, effete evil. Newsies opens by insisting that it's based on actual events, but director/choreographer Kenny Ortega quickly makes a clean break from reality. A certain amount of whitewashing is to be expected in a musical about class conflict, but Newsies makes being an exploited newsie look roughly as much fun as a trip to Disneyland with Michael Jordan and a limitless supply of candy. Even the film's riot scenes look like the good-hearted japery of lovable scamps. Newsies' attempt to plug pro-labor sentiments into a mainstream crowd-pleaser is admirable, but it would probably be a lot more effective if its conception of crowd-pleasing entertainment weren't stuck somewhere in the mid-1930s. More commercial, but just as conceptually perverse, is 1986's Soul Man, which attempts to transform John Howard Griffin's book Black Like Me into an outrageous teen sex comedy. In a performance that failed to win an NAACP Image Award, C. Thomas Howell stars as a smarmy rich kid who panics when his self-absorbed father tells him he must pay his own way through Harvard Law School. Rather than falling into the trap of hard work and honest labor, Howell wins a scholarship for black students by donning a wig and taking industrial doses of a tanning pill thatcauses him to look a lot like a smarmy brat-packer with an ugly sunburn. As a facile playboy with a mammoth sense of entitlement, Howell at first sees little wrong with his deception. "These are the '80s! This is the Cosby decade! America loves black people!" he enthuses during the early phase of his experiment. But before long, he learns just how pervasive racism truly is. Howell begins his Harvard stint with a spurt of montage-fueled excitement, which soon gives way to montage-fueled disillusionment as he experiences racism firsthand. Later, he also encounters montage-fueled romance, as he woos pretty, noble single mother Rae Dawn Chong. Between its many montage sequences, at least one of which is set to the song "Soul Man," Soul Man alternates between clumsy, labored farce and deadly earnest drama. Like Newsies, the film plugs a humanitarian message into its theoretically crowd-pleasing shtick, but it's far too glib to deal with any of the thorny issues it raises. Mainstream American film is periodically chastised for its unwillingness to deal with subjects like race and class, but Newsies and Soul Man suggest that its relative silence on those matters might be a blessing in disguise.
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