'Crooklyn' a colorful, boisterous burst of Spike Lee nostalgia

May 13, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Take "The Partridge Family" and set it to jazz; give it heart, soul, spunk and spice, let it roam and sizzle, let it get down, be funny and tender at once -- and you have Spike Lee's "Crooklyn."

In fact, Lee continually evokes that weirdly resonant '70s TV show, with its milky-white torrent of pieties, bad music and stingless, zingless humor, in contrast with his Partridges, a deliriously unkempt and boisterous crew of mischief-makers and ruckus-rousers -- that is to say, a real family -- called the Carmichaels, who spill through a brownstone in the Brooklyn of the same era. It's set, in other words, in that Magic Innocent American Camelot before Danny Bonaduce went to jail!

The story, which Lee co-wrote with his brother and sister, is clearly a memoir, though perhaps surprisingly at its center isn't the son who would grow up to be a universally admired film director but the daughter who would grow up to act in her brother's films, as she does in this one.

Zelda Harris, a beautiful and naturalistic young actress, appears as 10-year-old Troy Carmichael, the only girl in a family of boys, who has necessarily learned the cunning skills of survival. She is as tough as nails. It must give Joie Susannah Lee, who plays her aunt and who co-wrote the screenplay with brothers Spike and Cinque, a powerfully nostalgic sense to see such a vivacious young lady re-living her own life. Zelda -- like all of the kids -- seems truly spontaneous in the role: she has none of that brassy, eerie "presence" of the professional child star. She's a fighter, and she has to be.

In one gentle sense, I suppose, the movie is meant as a rebuke to "The Partridge Family's" cloying twaddle. This was your ideal, he seems to be saying to America, a tame, dreary little suburban family where every problem was solved in 24 minutes, no wounds were meaningful, nobody ever died. Meanwhile, you ignored us black Americans, made us, to paraphrase the great Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Family. And now: See how much more interesting we were, how we buckled and seethed with life and humor, how our adventures were passionate, our issues resonant, our sense of family overwhelming and nurturing. We were real.

But a deeper irony is that "Crooklyn" has more in common with the inane little show than one might immediately think. In fact, the image from that show that Lee chose almost like an epigraph to the account of his family displays a Partridge Family rock performance, with David Cassidy belting out the truly dreadful "I Think I Love You" while the camera wanders to such icons of suburban banality as Bonaduce and Susan Dey; but then it comes to rest on Mom, Shirley Jones, back there playing bass.

And as it turns out, that's exactly what mama Carolyn does in "Crooklyn" -- she plays bass in the family band, at least metaphorically. She provides the steady beat that holds it all together. The movie is in some sense conceived as a memorial to this wonderful woman, who clearly gave her children the legacy of accomplishment and the grit to make it happen. As played by Alfre Woodard, she's all energy and guts, running a family and a job, trying to clear the space to let her musician-husband work, setting a stern moral course and always backing the kids up. A shame the movie wasn't out last weekend: It's the best Mother's Day present a boy could give.

"Crooklyn" doesn't have much narrative drive; it's more a free-form piece that celebrates feelings and relationships. An over-arching concern is that father Woody (played by the great Delroy Lindo) is a pure jazz musician and refuses to give up on his form and join the rock revolution; alas, this means he's no longer bringing home a check, which means poverty is always breathing down his neck. Meanwhile, the kids roam through Brooklyn just having adventures, some innocent, some not so innocent. But the real focus is on the interactions in that house.

Lee is nothing if not inventive. Playful and giddy, he'll try anything, and sometimes the wrong thing. The camera feels childishly liberated, like a new toy; it sometimes floats up or floats down whimsically and finds the craziest angle possible. One gamble doesn't pay off: When Troy goes to visit relatives in the Virginia suburbs, Lee wants to show how flat and claustrophobic life is out there, so he shoots the long sequence with a lens that reproduces El Greco's astigmatism, rendering everything slender and crushed. Most of the people in the audience I saw it with simply didn't get it: They thought something was wrong with the projection. Worse, the trick just doesn't work, because so distorted are the faces of the new characters, we can never make contact with them; they don't seem real.

Still, "Crooklyn" offers a loving view of life; it's a movie to bring people together.

"Crooklyn"

Starring Zelda Harris and Alfre Woodard

Directed by Spike Lee

Released by Universal

PG-13

***

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