In 'Jungle Fever,' Spike Lee shows a leap in maturity

On movies

June 07, 1991|By Lou Cedrone

SPIKE LEE, whose ''Do the Right Thing'' was more wrong than right, and whose ''Mo' Better Blues'' was almost all wrong, shows tremendous improvement in his latest film, ''Jungle Fever.''

There are some things wrong with the movie, but there are many more that are right. If Lee has been criticized for being incapable of writing about relationships, if he has been rapped for not being able to end a movie, he manages both situations in the new film.

Actually, the new movie has two endings. The first seems arbitrary until Marvin Gaye comes to mind, and the second is just a little much. We know what the man is trying to do, but in this case, he may have overdone.

Lee, who has also been knocked for not including drugs in his films, for not saying that babies shouldn't have babies, handles that, too. It is as though he has responded to all criticism in the new film.

BThat makes it sound like a jumble, but it is not. True, Lee weaves a number of themes together, but they do mesh. One has a black architect fall in love with a white girl, a temporary helper. He's married and has a child. He's also weak and before long the two are at it on the drawing board.

That's one thing Lee is not very good at, the sex. You rather wish he would ignore it or do it in shorthand.

The relationship between the girl and the guy, however, is interesting and handled with intelligence. She is part of an Italian-American family living in Bensonhurst, which, you might think, is going to send Lee into a rage, but he doesn't go that way. He is maturing. He probably felt, in this instance, that mention was good enough.

The second theme has the architect's brother, a crack head, bring agony to his parents, played with heartfelt understanding by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. The brother is the bane of his parents' life, but they try. The mother does as all mothers do in this instance. She tries to buy time, but we know it isn't going to work. At one point, the architect, looking for his brother, visits a crack palace, and the scene plays like Fellini, no small accomplishment.

''Jungle Fever'' almost plays like a collection of set pieces with stand-out sequences. One has John Turturro, as Paulie Carbone, owner of a notion store in Bensonhurst, question his bigoted friends about their voting. They lament the fact that a black is now the mayor of New York, but they admit they didn't bother to vote.

In another, a group of black women sit around and talk about white and black men.

There are other scenes that play equally well, so if ''Jungle Fever'' doesn't amount to a solid whole, many of its parts are exceptional.

At times, Lee allows his background music to overwhelm the action. We are conscious, throughout, that Frank Sinatra is holding sway. We are also aware, at times, that some of the music sounds like the kind that is frequently identifiable with low-budget films. The original songs are good. They were done by Stevie Wonder. It's the rest that play like accompaniment for an early Russ Meyer movie.

There is also a 365-degree shot that goes around too often. This is the sort of thing that intrigues the film student, and Lee is well beyond that.

Elsewhere, however, ''Jungle Fever'' is on target, an always interesting, frequently exceptional film that proves, beyond doubt, that the director-writer is getting older.

Wesley Snipes is the architect, Annabella Sciorra is the temp, Samuel Jackson is the crack head, Lonette McKee is the architect's wife, and Anthony Quinn, who seems to have found a career as a character actor, is Lou Carbone, bigoted father to Paulie.

They, along with Turturro, Dee and Davis, make invaluable contribution to the film, one that also allows Lee to work as an actor, good friend to the architect. Here, too, he seems older, more experienced.

Snipes, the heavy in ''New Jack City,'' is very likable, very human as the architect, and Sciorra is equally engaging. Their personableness makes the characters they play more understandable than they might have been had they been done by others.

''Jungle Fever,'' which includes some scenes that will tear you apart and others that will have you laughing, opens here today. It is Spike Lee on the rise. It is, for the director-writer, an almost positive, hopeful film.

''Jungle Fever''

** A black architect falls in love with a white secretary.

CAST: Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Spike Lee, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Lonette McKee, John Turturro, Anthony Quinn


RATING: R (sex, language, violence)

) RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes

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