Picks and Pans Review: Mo' Better Blues

updated 08/13/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/13/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes

Director Spike Lee spent a lot of time earlier this year marinating in sour grapes. He has complained that his Do the Right Thing didn't receive the awards he thought it deserved because of white racism; in the process he has trashed, by implication at least, the performance of Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy. Next year he'll have only himself to blame.

His new film, basically Young Man with a Horn revisited with a black cast, has two spectacularly good performances, by Washington (Glory) as an introspective, articulate jazz trumpet player and by Snipes (Major League) as an ambitious, none-too-loyal saxophone player in Washington's band.

It has a terrific jazz score, with Terence Blanchard providing Washington's trumpet parts and Branford Marsalis playing Snipes's. Washington neatly performs a parody rap song written by Lee and Marsalis ("My nature is risin'/ to the horizon/ I'm as strong as an ox/ like a Clorox box"). And there's a great spontaneous-seeming dressing-room scene in which Washington. Snipes and the rest of their quintet argue—in colorful, lively, unquotably lewd language—about the fact that piano player Giancarlo (Do the Right Thing) Esposito has brought his girlfriend backstage before a show, breaking one of the band's informal rules.

The film also, however, has Lee intruding his shrimpy self into scene after scene. His character, Washington's boyhood pal and now his inept manager, is viable. But Lee reads his lines (which he also wrote as well as directed) like a waiter reciting the daily specials at a dull restaurant. Every time he shows up in a scene, he dissipates the vital, simmering chemistry built up by Washington, Snipes and romantic interests Joie Lee (Spike's sister) and Cynda Williams.

Lee skimps on scenes that might have given more dimension to the characters played by Joie and Williams—both of them are Washington's lovers—but he includes dreary stretches featuring himself, such as one scene in which he idly discusses his feelings about New York City baseball teams, including the now-outdated, if nothing else, "Steinbrenner's got to go." As director, he insists on butting in on his actors, in one instance pointlessly using a dizzying 360-degree carousel shot of one Washington-Williams love scene.

Even more destructive is the film's ending, which suggests that Lee ran out of either time or money, maybe both. After a dramatic event, Washington's character and personality change abruptly. He unnecessarily gives up the career he was totally devoted to ("If I can't play, I'll die," he had said earlier) and succumbs to an ending that—especially from someone as desperately concerned with seeming as hip as Lee—seems schmaltzier than anything Mantovani ever dreamed of.

It's a shame that Washington's ability to create a unique, engrossing character was so badly compromised in this film. But then it's clear who Lee thinks is the real star of Mo' Better Blues from its posters and the cover of the book about its creation. They show a wall with a photograph of Washington. Williams and Joie Lee but only one live person: in the foreground, Spike Lee himself, all gussied up and doin' the egocentric thing. (R)

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