Howard gives `Hustle' heart


July 22, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow takes the story Hollywood used to act out with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly putting on a musical in some farmer's yard and places it in the mean streets of Memphis.

It's a do-rags-to-riches fable peopled with pimps and hookers.

What gives the movie zest and punch is the lead performance of Terrence Howard as DJay, who feels he's spinning his wheels running a stable of prostitutes. DJay experiences an epiphany when he watches a high school buddy (Anthony Anderson) record gospel. And Howard has the warmth and expansiveness to make that revelation hit home.

With the help of a white church musician named Shelby (DJ Qualls), who's hipper than he looks - and thus exactly as hip as you expect in this sort of crowd-pleaser - DJay and his friend attempt to shape his life into rap. Howard throws DJay's thoughts and feelings into an audience's collective heart and mind like a spiritual ventriloquist. Even if you fight him, his ambitions become your own.

The female characters, including the prostitutes and Anderson's proper middle-class wife, exist to counterpoint or to serve DJay's quest. The movie builds to a confrontation with an established Memphis-bred rapper (played by Ludacris) that erupts into jarring melodrama.

Yet Howard carries the film on his shoulders, literally, roaming through his makeshift recording studio in a scoop-necked, sleeveless undershirt. His physicality expresses his avidity. He sucks the entire movie into DJay's roiling consciousness.

He seizes on the glittering home truths among the rhinestones in Brewer's writing. He puts an odd, powerhouse ruefulness into DJay's opening riff, when the pimp starts musing to one of his whores that dogs "don't know about no birthdays, or Christmas, or that one day God gonna come callin'. So you know, people like you and me, we always guessin' - you know - what if?"

Yet Howard doesn't balk at portraying DJay's cold-blooded skill at handling women - especially when he reminds a needy blond girl, Nola (Taryn Manning), "Remember where I first found you at? At that truck stop? You was the smallest little lot lizard I'd ever seen, tricking them truckers for change."

And the actor delivers a crucial dose of back-alley brutality to the key scene when a junkie barters a Casio keyboard for some weed. "I got pawn shop written on my forehead?" DJay asks.

Howard really makes the movie a must-see - and a must-hear - when he delivers DJay's rap with gut-check reality: "Now this is my life and/it's a battle within./ I gotta survive even if I'm/sinning to win./And if I show no remorse I reap the Devil's reward/He said he'd give me riches/but I'm looking for more."

In Hustle & Flow, a star is born playing a star who's born.

Hustle & Flow

Starring Terrence Howard

Directed by Craig Brewer

Released by Paramount Classics

Rated R

Time 117 minutes

Sun Score *** (three stars)

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