From the WriteMovies archives, a SHADOWBOXER film review. A film starring Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. Take your chance to get equally insightful feedback on your script with our Script Consultancies right HERE. A review article from the WriteMovies archive first published November 2006 by Brett Buckalew.
|Monday, November 6, 2006
One co-star, Helen Mirren, is front and center in this year’s Best Actress Oscar race. The other, Cuba Gooding Jr., has been doing his best lately to make us forget he ever won.
By Brett Buckalew
All of the recent actors unlucky enough to have suffered the notorious “Oscar curse” – e.g., landing only lackluster projects after winning an Academy Award – there is no case study more lamentable than that of Cuba Gooding Jr. After winning the supporting trophy for his magnetic turn as cocky, outspoken athlete Rod Tidwell in 1996’s Jerry Maguire, Gooding has proceeded to transport the Tidwell persona into increasingly ill-fitting roles.
Whether playing a psychologist (Instinct), an ice-cream-truck-driver protecting dangerous cargo (Chill Factor) or a straight man pretending to be a homosexual aboard a gay luxury cruise (Boat Trip), Gooding’s way into any character has lately consisted of just yelling and bugging his eyes out. It’s cringingly close to minstrelsy, and at a certain point, one has to look past the crummy scripts and assign blame to the once-promising actor himself.
Unexpectedly, almost ten years after winning that Oscar, Gooding has finally delivered another performance of great skill and subtlety, one with none of the Rod Tidwell bluster he has been using as a crutch for far too long. The indie-scaled, very unconventional thriller Shadowboxer, new this week on DVD, allows Gooding to quietly shine as a traumatized assassin whose proficiency and nearly mute demeanor are unable to hide his conscience.
But don’t call it a comeback. Though generally well-acted and admirably ambitious, Shadowboxer is rendered by director Lee Daniels with such stifling pretension and aggressive weirdness that it becomes an unintentional art-film parody that no amount of interesting performances or noble intentions can salvage.
Daniels is making his directorial debut after serving as producer on acclaimed mood pieces Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman, and those credits certainly establish him as a man of integrity carving his own niche outside of Hollywood-studio tradition. The problem is that, if his maiden voyage behind the camera is any indication, he seems to be buying into his own hype and taking himself way too seriously. This is the kind of solemn, schematic downer that opts to symbolize the theme of redemption by shoe-horning a cross into what feels like every other scene and having characters mouth platitudes like, “I’ve been thinking about God.”
Even the opening scene, wherein a poor little boy listens to his abusive father beating a woman in another room, prominently features, with glaring obviousness, a picture on the nightstand of an African-American Jesus. The boy grows up to be Mikey (Gooding), a hit man who carries out jobs with his partner Rose (Helen Mirren, note-perfect as always). He is also, in a provocatively Freudian conceit that is never satisfyingly explored, both son and lover to Rose. She has raised him ever since the death of his father, and the two seemingly can’t get enough of each other’s bodies, as portrayed in a few titillating sex scenes.
Casting a tragic shadow over their unique bond is Rose’s ongoing battle with terminal cancer. Her knocking-at-death’s-door status also has an impact upon her job, made evident when she is unable to pull the trigger on Vickie (Vanessa Ferlito), the pregnant wife of ruthless crime boss Clayton (Stephen Dorff).
Rose convinces the initially reluctant Mikey to help her hide Vickie and the newborn baby – in a contrived touch, Vickie’s water breaks at the exact moment she encounters Rose’s pistol – from Clayton’s clutches. The three form an unlikely family unit and purchase a lovely estate, so the rest of the movie plays out like A Home at the End of the World as remade by a lobotomized James Toback.
Like Toback, the renegade writer-director of Fingers and Black and White, Daniels alternates scenes of brutality with moments of tenderness while exploring ideas of race and sex. He goes so far as to duplicate Toback’s signature soundtrack of classical music colliding with hip hop. But whereas Toback is an intellectually probing mind who thrives on improvisation, Daniels directs with a heavy hand and fails to mine any insight from the script’s variety of unusual sexual couplings.
We’re given not only the interracial, age-differentiated, quasi-incestuous union between Mikey and Rose, but also a subplot following Dr. Don (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as charismatic here as he recently has been in Mysterious Skin and Brick, despite the dip in quality of the movie surrounding him), the medic who tends to Vickie’s child, and his crack-addict girlfriend Precious (Mo’Nique). Writer William Lipz treats this relationship with the same hollow vagueness he brings to the Mikey-Rose dynamic, so we’re basically asked to applaud the onscreen embrace of physical difference – in Dr. Don and Precious’ case, it’s one of not just of race but body weight – without asking for anything more dramatically interesting.
The scenes featuring Dr. Don and Precious aren’t the only ones in the movie to wander away from the central storyline to indulge in head-scratching bits of in-your-face oddness. There are passages focusing on Vickie’s man-hungry friend Neisha (Macy Gray, awfully convincing at playing drunk), who is obsessed with going to a singles bar called the Snooty Fox (!) Mikey is at one point required to disguise himself as a transsexual prostitute for no discernible narrative reason (perhaps Gooding is doing penance for the homophobia of Boat Trip), and whenever the film hangs out with gleeful sadist Clayton, it plays as a lampooning of clichéd thriller villainy, whether intentionally or not.
Along with the riveting work by Gooding, Mirren, and Gordon-Levitt, these bizarre detours place Shadowboxer on a slightly higher DVD rental level than most artistic failures. It’s clear that Daniels is really trying for something transcendent, but maybe if he didn’t try so hard, his film wouldn’t have failed at all.
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