Doing the Wrong Thing
By Fernando F. Croce

She Hate Me, Spike Lee's latest joint, opens with a long montage of blown-up dollars billowing sensuously under the credits, like sheets in the wind, with the parade of dead presidents culminating, logically enough, in a three-dollar bill adorned by Dubya's grinning mug. Lee is already scrambling to push buttons even before his buppie hero steps onto the screen, though the headline-grabbing bait is just the first of a Vesuvio of thematic rags -- corporate greed, Enron, alternative lifestyles, Martha Stewart, Watergate, parental responsibility, and AIDS in Africa are just a few of the issues eager-beaver Lee tosses into the cauldron. If most of the director's movies are overstuffed valises, his latest is a bombed-out pawnshop. It just about splits your skull.

The plot follows Jack Armstrong (charmlessly played by Anthony Mackie), the young VP of a biotech company on the verge of releasing a vaccine for HIV. After a German scientist friend (unbilled David Bennett, not quite grown up from The Tin Drum) dives out a window, Jack gets wise to some financial skulldrugery involving his soulless bosses (Ellen Barkin and Woody Harrelson). Remembering his squashed pal's advice ("Not to know is bad, not to want to know is worse"), he blows the whistle and is immediately quarantined, unemployable in the business world. Just as his money vault dries up, in walks his former fiancée Fatima (Kerry Washington), with her foxy new girlfriend Alex (Dania Ramirez) in tow.

Strong, independent lesbians they may be, but the two still prefer getting pregnant the old-fashioned way, and are ready to offer Jack ten grand a piece for his "man milk," sweetening the deal by throwing in a contract relieving him of any parental duties. It's not long before tough-minded Fatima is running a fertilization business out of her old beau's babymaking prowess -- doubling down on Viagra and Red Bull, Jack braves his way through a brigade of increasingly beefy dykes before his conscience pipes up. After getting his knuckles rapped for perpetuating black stereotypes of the absent father, he sets out to force-feed the mess he's made into some kind of familial mold -- which means breaching his contractual agreement and inserting himself into the lives of Fatima and Alex as papa to their incoming niños.

She Hate Me has already lapped madness by the time the time the main character is preaching full familial duties to Brian Dennehy's senate committee in what feels like Preston Sturges minus the humor. Consistency (of idea, style, tone) has never been Lee's strong suit, but the film's schizophrenia, mirroring the director's incoherent agenda, veers from gory detailing over a suicide to Look Who's Talking-type fatigued cartoon sperms to Mr. Spike Goes to Washington listen-up theatrics. Despite its spilling-over digressions (including but not limited to Q-Tip getting dissed at the sperm bank and John Turturro doing Don Corleone shtick), the movie is arguably Lee's most tired, arid work. Even the raunchiness feels dispirited.

As in the mushing of personal despair with post-9/11 gravitas of his previous 25th Hour, Lee (with co-writer Michael Genet) aims to anchor his hodgepodge in the thematic bridging of two concepts, here crumbling American business and American families. The former, skewered by derisive digital video and presided over by Harrelson and the Marthafied Barkin, is given to dubbing the public "a bunch of fucking morons," while the latter, personalized by Jack's ball-and-chain parents (emasculated Jim Brown and stringy Lonette McKee), is further fractured by the director's notion of homosexual relationships as essentially incomplete ones. (Notice how Lee dollies into an empty staircase right before cutting to Jack finding his bride-to-be in girl-on-girl flagrante delicto during an overexposed flashback.) Like Robert Towne in Personal Best and Kevin Smith in Chasing Amy, Lee is incapable of depicting lesbians apart from how they relate to men -- for all the lip service about sapphic independence and choice (to say nothing of Fatima's own "I love pussy" declaration), the gals have no qualms about succumbing to Jack's throbbing maleness.

I don't expect Lee to clean up his methods and round off his edges any more than I would expect the Merchant-Ivory boys to direct music videos -- chaos is clearly how he likes to work, and the same creative turbulence runs through the highs and the lows of his oeuvre. What I do want is for him to clarify his thinking. Lee has attempted to prod mystifying femininity since his She's Gotta Have It debut, but his misogyny has not reemerged this fully since Girl 6. Fearful of the power and persistence of the shades of womanhood undulating throughout the film, he cannot help but filter them through a gaze that streamlines them into patriarchal order. (Compare his straitjacketing to Tarantino's opening-up in Kill Bill.) Unlike the self- policing analysis of Keaton in Seven Chances, Fellini in City of Women or even Altman in Dr. T and the Women, Lee doesn't so much criticize or reflect on his own chauvinistic limitations as parade them, petulantly. Add to this flip-flopping visuals and Lee's customary fortissimo pounding, and you begin to have an idea of how nightmarish She Hate Me is.

Reviewed August 10, 2004.

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