FEW WILL ACCUSE Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues" of being a masterpiece. But it's still full of the things that make Spike Lee films, well, Spike Lee films. Full of the fun, full of the spirit.
And full of the people -- the Spike Lee people. Perhaps the best thing about this jazzy love story is the combined presence of everyone, the sense that Lee's cast and crew is alive and well.
There's little in the first two-thirds of "Blues" that isn't highly watchable. Ernest Dickerson, Lee's regular director of photography, reprises his memorably colorful, playfully gymnastic images. A soundtrack featuring John Coltrane, Branford Marsalis and Bill Lee (Spike's father) suffuses the film with heady spirit. And mega-likable Denzel Washington graces his central role with tasty licks.
He's Bleek Gilliam, a dedicated musician who doesn't understand why girlfriends Joie Lee and (newcomer) Cynda Williams want to come between him and his trumpet. Therein lies the central story of "Blues." Yet also therein lies its central shortcoming.
In apparent counterpoint to the movie's bouncy, musical spirit, Spike Lee wants to make a film about relationships: Washington and his women, his rivalry with band saxophonist Wesley Snipes, his obstinate fidelity to his friend, manager and compulsive gambler Giant (played by Spike Lee), his dressing room antics with band members Bill Nunn and Giancarlo Esposito. Yet, though those relationships are ticklish, they're never deeply engaging.
The movie loses momentum in its final third. The script's twists and turns, including alarmingly violent reprisals against two characters, seem narratively inorganic, arranged in the wrong key. Lee also tacks on the kind of unimaginatively scripted, happily-ever-after finale you'd think he'd despise.
The things to savor in "Blues" come in no particular order. Sometimes it's the music or comic retorts -- from Lee, Esposito or the late, amusingly blue-tongued Robin Harris, to whom this film is dedicated. But perhaps the most delicious example is a comic surrealistic scene in which Washington makes love to Joie Lee, only to find her turn into Williams, then back again. He starts calling each one by the wrong name. Now they both scream at him. He looks from one to the other, back to the first one, then the other. Finally, in complete hapless exasperation, he looks directly at us. It'll bring the house down every time.