'The Inkwell' is a clumsy story of coming of age

April 22, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Just about nothing works in "The Inkwell," and that's being kind.

Under the muzzy sentimentality of the young-man-coming-of-age routine, this one is really quite ugly. It maintains -- literally, without irony -- that a boy can't become a man unless he has sex with a woman, any woman. And in "The Inkwell" the sex is with a clearly emotionally disturbed older woman. It gave me the creeps.

Perhaps the creepiest thing about it is that most young directors sooner or later remake a hallowed film of their youth -- usually it's "Mean Streets," though it can be "Citizen Kane" or even "The Wild Bunch" -- but Matty Rich has chosen . . . "Summer of '42"?

Yes, he has. Rich got a major blast of publicity two years back with a crude but heartfelt examination of some of the pathologies at play in the public housing community of Red Hook, Brooklyn (it was called "Straight Out of Brooklyn" and it was straight out of Brooklyn.) The film got him a studio contract and now, with Touchstone footing the bills, he's re-creating a slightly safer but nevertheless menacing culture of black bourgeoise America, circa 1976.

The Inkwell turns out to be a beach on Martha's Vineyard, where, evidently for generations, prosperous African-Americans have been repairing to enjoy summer vacations untainted by prejudice. Yet even Rich's evocation of this little spot feels phony: It's like a little oasis of pleasure in a land of near-apartheid, with absolutely zero contact with white people.

Into this demi-Eden comes a dysfunctional family, the Tates, who have been invited to stay with the wife's wealthier sister and her oppressively Republican husband. Not a pretty situation at all, since the father (played by Joe Morton) represents himself as a former Black Panther.

But Rich, working from a screenplay by Tom Ricostronza and Paris Qualles, can get nothing out of the different world views of these two men. Instead, the wealthy Spencer is overplayed by Glynn Turman as a blowhard who clenches a cigarette holder and flaunts his gold Rolex. On Martha's Vineyard? That bastion of subdued WASP taste? Doesn't ring true.

Perhaps it's not Rich's fault: the screenplay draws these two characters so crudely that they seem like cartoons. That's not his fault. On the other hand, any director who can get a bad performance out of Joe Morton has some serious deficiencies.

Meanwhile, the movie focuses on Drew, the son, played by Larenz Tate in such a fog that he seems almost mentally challenged. Tate never finds a handle on the character. His mandate is to prove to his father that he's a man by virtue of achieving a sexual triumph.

This quest is played in counterpoint to the amorous wanderings of an older married man, who has a lovely wife but philanders with a vengeance. It is to his wife that Drew is drawn, much as Gary Grimes was drawn to Jennifer O'Neill in "'42." In that film, it was her husband's death that transported the young man to brief, accidental paradise; in "The Inkwell" it's her husband's adultery. The whole thing feels ridiculous.

The movie is full of things that don't work; Drew's relationship with his buddies has a kind of polyester feel to it. And his gropings toward Jada Pinkett, as the Inkwell's reigning beauty, seem equally dim. Tate was wonderful as the psycho O-dog in the Hughes' brothers' "Menace II Society" last year, where he used his boyish good looks in menacing contrast to the darkness of his heart. Here, he seems like a mini-Michael Jackson before the fall, a phony-innocent Peter Pan gamboling through the cranberry patches of the Vineyard. Nothing convinces.

"The Inkwell"

Starring Larenz Tate and Joe Morton

Directed by Matty Rich

Released by Touchstone

R-rated

**

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