Chalk up sequel as exploitation Poitier passes, but "To Sir With Love II" fails in nearly every way. It's a Lulu.

April 06, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Did they really have to concoct such a nutty opening just so they could bring Lulu back to sing "To Sir With Love" one more time, 29 years later?

A middle-age Lulu singing the words of a lovestruck teen in an improbable, hokey scene set in a school gymnasium -- you might think things could not get worse than that in "To Sir With Love II," but they do. They get so bad, in fact, that it might actually make you angry about the way network television -- with its insatiable appetite for product -- will take a great actor like Sidney Poitier and a culturally important film like "To Sir With Love" and turn them into sawdust for nothing more than another two hours of let's-fill-a-scheduling-hole programming (tomorrow night at 9 on CBS). "To Sir II" is the beast drooling on itself after taking another bite out of our cultural hide.

The film begins with Mark Thackeray (Poitier) having decided to retire from the London school where he has spent the last 30 years teaching history and self-respect to working-class kids. That's where Lulu comes in -- singing at his retirement party.

Instead of taking one of the prestigious posts offered to him at several American Ivy League universities, though, Thackeray shocks his colleagues by announcing that he has decided to sign on at an inner-city high school in Chicago. The reasons for this choice -- not explained with any clarity in the film -- are a friendship with the school principal (Daniel J. Travanti) and a vague desire by Thackeray to try to find a Chicago woman he once loved as a young man living in Guyana.

Thackeray's first day in the Chicago classroom will require some viewers to turn the suspension-of-disbelief dial up a notch or two higher than the Lulu scene, but it's nothing compared with what follows, when the camera moves outside to show viewers the streets of South Side Chicago today.

One of Thackeray's pupils is a drug dealer who is being threatened by other drug dealers. Their showdown on the school playground is straight out of the 1961 film version of "West Side Story." The only thing the actors don't do is snap their fingers in time with the soundtrack.

The scene is so stunning in its utter lack of realism that it sent me running to the credits to see who was responsible. Peter ("The Last Picture Show") Bogdanovich directs from a script by Phillip Rosenberg. Let's let Bogdanovich's career rest in peace.

The gang fight, though, is ultimately topped by a deathbed scene in which Thackeray is reunited with the woman he once loved in Guyana. Mistakes, from actors' makeup to script, render this scene silly instead of touching and are too numerous to recount.

Through it all, Poitier perseveres; that's the only good news here. In fact, despite the 10,000 things wrong with "To Sir II," for true Poitier believers, the film might still be worth two hours of time just to watch him work.

But CBS doesn't deserve your patronage. The original 1967 "To Sir With Love" was a significant cultural event for many of the baby boomer generation. The film dealt with matters of social class and race in a meaningful way, while capturing the mood of optimism about education and race relations that many of us felt in those days. I wonder how many of us went into teaching with the image of Mark Thackeray in our mind's eye and the dreamy words of Lulu ringing in our ears.

An intelligent, thoughtful sequel could have helped us measure the distance from a conviction in 1967 that we could re-energize America's public classrooms and culture, to the middle-age funk that goes with failing test scores and the hopelessly violent schools that many of us find our children in today.

In that sense, "To Sir II" could have enlightened us instead of being just a two-bit flick that seeks only to exploit by pushing the buttons of baby boomer nostalgia.

Pub Date: 4/06/96

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