The personal is political

Opposites attract, then clash, in the wispy 'Medicine for Melancholy'

** (2 Stars)

March 06, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Medicine for Melancholy begins with the morning after a one-night stand. It turns into a day freighted with political significance as well as sexual chemistry for Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Joanne (Tracey Heggins).

These two San Franciscans come from opposite poles of the African-American social spectrum. Supported by her white art-curator lover, who is in London, Joanne lives what Micah calls an "indie" life, which he considers anti-black. Micah is an African-American Firster, determined to promote what he considers to be authentic black experiences. When Joanne suggests a visit to San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, Micah counters with a trip to the Museum of the African Diaspora. Later, Micah explains how city planning and continued gentrification have forced the black population out of San Francisco.

As Kurt Vonnegut might have said, so it goes, right up to the moment when they eavesdrop on a Housing Rights Committee meeting about rent control. The director, Barry Jenkins, wants to capture the most natural and casual moments of his performers, but the writer, also Barry Jenkins, keeps getting in the way. Does Joanne feel she has denied a part of herself in neglecting her racial heritage? Is that why she is attracted to Micah?

Cenac, a recent addition to The Daily Show, has an easy, unaffected manner that takes some of the undue weight off the script's portentous moments. Still, I cringed when Joanne, who's called Jo, asks if she can call Micah "Mike," and he says no, that's not the same thing. Cenac can't suggest how a fellow like Micah would wear over the long haul: We seem to see his limits over the course of 24 hours. Heggins can't turn Joanne into anything more than a classy, sensual question mark.

Jenkins gives them poetic jobs and pastimes. Micah installs designer aquariums, and Joanne emblazons T-shirts with names of female directors (she wears one that reads Loden, for Barbara Loden, the lover and wife of Elia Kazan and director of Wanda). The movie has an exquisite look to match. It presents a fresh view of San Francisco in black and white, reserving splashes of color for a woman's blouse or a pot of flowers.

Yet it's pretty in all the wrong ways: pretty slight, pretty preachy and pretty affected.

Medicine for Melancholy

(IFC Films) Starring Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins. Directed by Barry Jenkins. Unrated. Time 88 minutes.

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