Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb may be the preeminent hagiographic bio-doc, complicating our view of a cultural icon while awakening us to why he deserves our attention. It’s not an easy trick to pull off, given the cheese factor of American celebrity. Jim Brown: All American, Spike Lee’s epic-length video portrait of the erstwhile running back/B-movie star/lawbreaker, is a substantially tamer affair, if only because Brown himself keeps an intimidating headlock on his own image. That his public perception slithers out of Brown’s grasp every now and then—as in, how the media captures him upon each arrest for assault—is apparently a source of angry disappointment. He’s as wary of the camera as he is beholden to it. Chatting about fan psychology, Brown maintains, “The bottom line for a man is ‘I can kick your ass,’ ” and indeed his trajectory was always an uneasy balance between civilized righteousness and the urge to answer life’s inopportune questions with a huge, hammering fist.
Since Lee is a sentimentalist, the film is more worshipful than your random E! True Hollywood Story. Brown’s significance as a black role model is the primary text, and no hyperbole is spared. After a clumsy sequence at Brown’s birthplace on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, Lee gets down to the athletic career: a magical reign at Manhasset High School, a troubled but stellar four years at Syracuse, and his record-busting nine years with the Cleveland Browns. Old coaches, teammates, sportswriters, Oliver Stone (who cites Nietzsche): To one and all, Brown is unequivocally the greatest player football had ever seen.
How he’d fare in today’s land of the giants is an unexplored issue, but still, gridiron excellence justifies a Sunday-afternoon between-games special, not a two-hour-10-minute paean. Things get juicier when Brown goes to Hollywood, although it’s a stretch to claim that junk heaps like 100 Rifles and Slaughter were rousing acts of social conscience. While blabbermouths James Toback and Donald Bogle make royal asses of themselves trying to establish Brown’s epochal stature based on a few crummy movies and a great deal of sexual legend, it hardly seems that Brown was used on-screen as much more than a black-buck token. When Brown’s proud agent was asked by befuddled Dirty Dozen director Robert Aldrich what Brown could do, he happily answered, “He can run!”
Brown’s consistent interest in activism—from the ’60s Negro Economic Union to the current anti-gang project Amer-I-Can—is honorable, but nothing seems to alleviate Brown’s do-the-right-thing indignation. He’s a one-man Million Man March, obsessing on righteousness to the extent that you wonder what sins are being perpetually redressed. (His first wife never shows up, though his addict son Kevin makes a self-deprecating appearance, suggesting the withering experience of having failed the sternest and largest of dads.) With a new prison sentence having begun recently for Brown (for failing to do community service after beating his wife’s car up with a shovel), the progress of the man’s unspoken redemption is far from over.
Redemption is cheap in movies, if not in life, and the new Argentine comedy Son of the Bride is a custom-calibrated sucker punch. When the hero (Ricardo Darín) is immediately revealed as a bloated, chain-smoking, workaholic deadbeat dad, we know a tragedy and/or cardiac event will transform him into a life-loving mensch. The pivotal narrative point is so ripe the film can’t help but go soft and stinky: Darín’s elderly father (Héctor Alterio) wants to remarry his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife (Norma Aleandro) in a church ceremony, although she may be oblivious to the entire affair.
In its details, though, Juan José Campanella’s movie works beautifully: The actors are all superb when the florid demands of the story allow them elbowroom, the visits to Aleandro’s nursing home are quietly eloquent, and a movie-set debacle is an inventively conceived gas. There’s a germ of a real movie here—the dissolution of memory is a promising motif, but Campanella is too focused on emotional browbeating to let it gain any resonance.
Deliverance also fuels Ice Age (in general release), insofar as this new digi-toon essentially apes Shrek (embittered gargantuan endures a pesky, chattering hanger-on) as it remakes Monsters, Inc. (anthropomorphs are stuck with a human child they must return). Something of a laxative corrective to the impacted imbroglio of Dinosaur, Ice Age has only its stylized designs to recommend it (the characters resemble Trnka puppets). The opening and closing scenes, in which a crazed squirrel initiates arctic Armageddon trying to hide a single acorn, vanquishes the hour in between.