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Lee's Losing 'Game' Plan

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 1998

  Movie Critic

He Got Game Denzel Washington stars in "He Got Game." (Touchstone)

Spike Lee
Denzel Washington;
Ray Allen;
Milla Jovovich;
Jennifer Esposito;
Ned Beatty;
Charles Barkley;
Rosario Dawson;
Bill Nunn;
John Turturro
Running Time:
2 hours, 16 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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"He Got Game," Spike Lee's risk-taking, quasi-spiritual parable about fathers, sons and the blessed sacrament of basketball, is really two distinct movies in one. The problem, sadly, is that the whole amounts to less than the sum of its parts. It's as though Lee has tossed not one but two promising balls simultaneously toward the hoop. Despite tracing gorgeous, balletic arcs through the air, however, one shot blocks the other and neither ultimately scores.

On the one hand, the film is a fable-a modern take on Gustave Flaubert's 1874 "The Temptation of St. Anthony." Except that in this case our pure-of-heart hero is a black high school basketball star from Coney Island by the name of Jesus Shuttlesworth (well-played by Ray Allen of the Milwaukee Bucks), and instead of demons and harlots, it is unscrupulous coaches, venal sports agents and white college coeds who are trying to lure him from the straight and narrow. In the stylized manner of a fantasia, those performances are caricatured and over the top. But that's okay because this aspect of the film is more allegory than cineğma veğriteğ anyway-in fact, the two generic colleges fighting to recruit Jesus are emblematically dubbed Big State and Tech U.

The other competing story line of "Game" is a psychological exploration of the relationship between Jesus and his estranged father Jake (Denzel Washington). A convict who has not seen his son in six years, Jake has been granted a furlough of one week in order to convince the hot college prospect to sign with the governor's alma mater. (Never mind this laughably far-fetched premise-it's just there to set up the moral of the story.) The journey toward reconciliation between Jake and Jesus is actually the smaller part of the overall film. It's poignant, believable and well told, but in the end undermined by the preachifying and speechifying of the larger narrative.

This is due in large part to Lee's own well-known basketball jones, a fatal obsession that leads him to use the sport as a stand-in for life. The director's grandiose ambitions are obvious from the opening credits, as a montage of young players-male and female, black and white-shoot slow-motion hoops on urban blacktops and against midwestern barns. The images-set to the stirring score of Aaron Copland's "John Henry"-are meant to suggest that the sport is not only more American than apple pie but has now superseded that other, once-favored national pastime.

But the opening sequence also serves as a litmus test of sorts for those audience members who may not share this fervor. In those first few minutes, one thing becomes achingly clear: You are sitting in the Church of the Holy Orb. If you haven't been saved by now, you're sure not going to understand the sermon that follows.

And what a schizoid sermon it is. Allen and Washington's performances are so powerfully naturalistic that they seem out of sync with the rest of the largely cardboard and implausible cast, including Milla Jovovich as Dakota, a hooker with a heart of gold, and Roger Guenveur Smith as Big Time Willie, a tellin'-it-like-it-is street criminal with a penchant for tough-love monologues.

There's one other not-so-tiny flaw with Lee's filmmaking. By now the director has made so many commercials that he's actually gotten too good at selling stuff-not just the latest model of Michael Jordan sneakers from his sometime employer Nike (prominently advertised in the film for $139)-but what in the end is his own cynical and simplistic view of the world (populated by cartoons, not real characters). Pornography doesn't become lovemaking just because you stick some slick string music in the background, and a ballgame doesn't work as a metaphor-or worse yet, a religion-just because Spike Lee believes in it.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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