Girl Trouble Brilliant in places with Theresa Randle's performance earning stardom for her, 'Girl 6' still is the year's messiest movie.

March 22, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Girl 6" is, both sadly and spectacularly, what we have come to expect from Spike Lee: It's a brilliant mess.

Insanely ambitious and courting controversy like a man in love, the film represents Lee's return to the terrain that originally established him as a talent to watch. That is, as in "She's Gotta Have It," he's gone back to female sexuality, trying to understand exactly what it is she's gotta have and why she's gotta have it.

The "she" in question is Theresa Randle, whose reach for stardom this film represents and whose arrival there it signals. Randle, in a brilliant and commanding performance that is the film's surest reward, plays the anonymous title character, a bright, ambitious actress who is nevertheless (and quite routinely) abused by an industry that treats women as pieces of flesh.

The film's first scene is among its most powerful. Quentin Tarantino, playing a nightmare vision of himself as a crass, greedy, smart, too-powerful, punk nerd, orders her to take off her shirt as part of an audition.

Tarantino is quite good as Bad Quentin: He's forceful, nasty, self-indulgent, narrow and both pathetic and impressive at once. But he represents, in the movie's consciousness, the need to exploit that undercuts professional show business.

And when Randle leaves the audition, humiliated by her ordeal, she bumbles into a hallway full of young women who look just like her except that they won't have any trouble at all taking off their shirts for the director.

It gets worse: Work as an extra is demeaning (she isn't allowed to go to the bathroom!). Lee's critique of his own industry feels passionate and convincing.

But then the movie takes its strangest twist.

Desperate for work, Randle joins a phone sex company and becomes the legendary Girl 6. The whole thing is weirdly sentimentalized: The offices look like the executive suites at International Creative Management, the big Hollywood talent agency: swank and slick; the women are all beauties or at least extremely well-turned-out, and they work in nifty little glass cubicles, sitting at computer keyboards, speaking into head-set mikes.

It does look like an agency, and it's certainly a great distance from one's assumptions of such a place, which would include a squalid workplace full of desperate or possibly bored women while a bulbous, tattooed overseer patrols the aisles with a cattle prod, looking to punish the gal who couldn't hold her john on the phone for at least half an hour.

But Lee, working from a script by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, is interested in portraying phone sex as a refuge from show business. In fact, there's an insistence all the way through the film that the honesty of phone sex is less hypocritical than show biz and that the relationships, both with her co-workers and her clients, are far less exploitative than they are in show biz.

Thus the movie, whose presumably steamy conversations have been toned way down, sees phone sex as almost missionary work, with a kind of healing power. It argues that men need to have such urgent, dark, anonymous ministrations.

Meanwhile, workplace culture in the office seems extremely, almost comically healthy, with Mother Hen Jennifer Lewis clucking over her brood, running the operation with a kind of sentimentalized benevolence.

At the same time, Randle is bonding passionately with some of her customers, particularly Peter Berg, who doesn't want sex so much as therapy and turns to Girl 6 to discuss his mother's bout with cancer. Yet when he makes an actual date with Girl 6, he stands her up, and the movie never really deals with this issue.

That's one of many untidinesses in what has to be the year's messiest movie.

Somehow Lee works himself into the script in a co-starring role as Girl 6's next-door neighbor, one of those baseball-card guys who lives through his collection of paper athletes. Perhaps he means to make a point here that doesn't quite come off: Is his Jimmy (the only character with a name) meant to be an unconscious parallel to Girl 6, someone who lives through representations rather than reality.

But that's not enough for this wildly uneven film, which gets messier still as it thunders along.

One subtext is pure show-biz pleasure, and that's the empty but potent fun of watching celebs slum in cameo roles. Richard Belzer shows up as a phone-sex addict who calls in to get his jollies while watching his children play in the sand from his beach house.

Madonna has a surprisingly convincing turn as a phone-sex madam of a slightly different sort than Lewis: She runs a stable of women who work out of their homes, the point being that the private vendors can provide far dirtier stuff than the agency girls. The comparison, to continue the hooker analogy, seems to be between escort-service prostitutes and streetwalkers.

But even that isn't enough.

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