Jada Pinkett is the best thing about 'Shame'

November 23, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Low Down Dirty Shame" is a case of Jada in the morning, Jada in the evening, Jada in the summertime. Jada Pinkett is pure sugar and you come away wanting more.

The film is actually one of those movies -- "Top Gun" and the job it did for Meg Ryan is another that comes to mind -- in which the nominal star takes a back seat to a secondary performer who literally reinvents herself in front of your eyes. It's a great career move, but for Pinkett rather than writer-director-star Keenen Ivory Wayans.

This is a Jada Pinkett nobody has seen before, at least nobody outside of her acting class at the Baltimore School for the Arts. She's smart, sassy, tough, funny and has more attitude than Macy's has Christmas lights. Her Peaches Gordon is every private eye's dream secretary and every moviegoer's answer to a prayer: 100 percent entertainment.

The movie itself doesn't begin to approach Pinkett's charisma, but it tries hard. Its fundamental flaw is that it can't decide to what degree it's a spoof or not, and it keeps veering erratically between the ridiculous and the ugly.

Wayans casts himself as Andre Shame, a former LAPD detective who took the fall when a raid went belly up, five cops were slain and $20 million disappeared. So, like many disgraced cops before, he's hung out a shamus shingle, hired a secretary and waits for an indifferent world to beat a path to his door. Now,

.

.TC few years later, who should show up but his old DEA buddy Rothmiller (another former Baltimorean, Charles S. Dutton) to announce that the big drug dealer who was the object of the raid is back in town. He wants Shame to help him run the guy down.

The model here is "Shaft," from the late '60s, with its polyester music and penchant for guns with very long barrels, as if any six people out there still remember "Shaft." But Wayans doesn't go far enough into spoof, so the film never approaches the delirium of the "Naked Gun" series, which blew spoof out to the horizon. But at the same time the film has no weight as drama: The characters are feather-light, and nothing at all is at stake. What's left is spectacle -- some very good action sequences -- and humor -- intermittent when Pinkett isn't around.

Wayans is generous as a director; he backs off and lets Pinkett steal the movie from him. When she's not in it, there's not a lot to get excited about. One plot element features Salli Richardson as Shame's treacherous ex-girlfriend, really a send-up of the standard issue film noir femme fatale. Richardson is drop-dead beautiful and sexy, but she doesn't register with anything like the same force as Pinkett. It's another example of how meaningless simple beauty is to film: The camera may like you or it may not, and it has nothing to do with the standards of classic beauty.

The other theme of the movie is breaking glass. Wayans, as a director, loves to watch glass break. Well, that's better than watching paint dry. In this one, he literally liquefies the world of transparent melted sand: He watches it shatter fast and slow, he watches it crackle and dissolve or vaporize or lose its structural integrity and collapse into itself. Every pane is a field of dreams. The movie could be a research tool for the Libby-Owens-Ford R&D team.

'A Low Down Dirty Shame'

Stars: Keenen Ivory Wayans, Jada Pinkett and Salli Richardson

Director: Keenen Ivory Wayans

Released by: Touchstone

Rated R

** 1/2

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