To its credit, I suppose, Shadowboxer is never exactly boring—in the sense that a jabbering madman’s most florid delusions are never exactly boring. Lee Daniels’s directorial debut is a garish, flaming wreck of a movie. All foolish vanity projects should be so riveting, so undaunted in the face of crushing absurdity. As befits a film by a successful indie producer ( Monster’s Ball, The Woodsman) turned would-be auteur, Shadowboxer appears to have been willed into existence through a potent intermingling of ego and checkbook. To watch it is to ponder how—not to mention why—one even begins to get seasoned, ostensibly self-aware professional actors to perform certain acts onscreen. This is a movie in which at least two people are fucked to death—one with a pool cue, the other by Cuba Gooding Jr.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when it becomes clear that this lurid, steroidal neo-noir is certifiably insane (or at least a lot funnier than it means to be), but it’s pretty early on. There’s the strange moment of bathtub tendresse between Rose and Mikey (Helen Mirren and Gooding), an assassin duo who happen to be lovers as well as stepmother and stepson. (She’s also dying of cancer—hence the coughing fits and deep, self-pitying swigs of Wild Turkey.) And there’s that soon-to-be-legendary sodomy scene, in which the villainous gangster Clayton (Stephen Dorff, more than ever a poor man’s Mark Wahlberg) has his victim splayed, strapped to a pool table, pinned down by some heavies, and gagged with an eight ball. (Nice touch: After Clayton snaps the pool cue, one half goes flying offscreen in hilarious slo-mo.)
Premised largely on oedipal conflicts and interracial harmony (or more precisely, interracial shtupping), the plot kicks in when Clayton hires Rose and Mikey to dispose of his philandering pregnant wife, Vickie (Vanessa Ferlito). They break into his estate, a cartoon baddie’s palace (as signified by the zebra that roams the lawns), but just as Rose is about to pull the trigger, Vickie’s water breaks and the hitwoman, her mind very much on her own mortality, spies the possibility of redemption. Not only do the killers spare Vickie, they deliver her baby boy (“It’s a gift from God,” Rose declares) and take it upon themselves to form a curious alternative family, helped by the occasional ministrations of another oddball couple, a skinny white doctor and a rotund black nurse played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mo’nique.
Beneath the heavy-breathing hysteria, there’s something bold and even noble about Shadowboxer. The eccentric casting alone plainly means to short-circuit various preconceptions about race, sex, age, and body type. But this monumentally ridiculous film doesn’t stop at subverting stereotypes; it discombobulates narrative logic and the basic laws of human behavior. Still, there’s a certain pleasure to be derived from watching the actors attempt to dig out from under the rubble that William Lipz’s screenplay repeatedly dumps on their heads. Mirren and Gordon-Levitt keep a straight face. Gooding seems vaguely embarrassed, especially when baring his ass. Dorff is only too happy to whip out his scene-stealing schlong. Mo’nique hints that she’s in on the joke. Ferlito clearly has no clue. And then there’s the Macy Gray approach. As Vickie’s friend Niesha, a sloppy, slurring banshee who exits the movie much too soon, Gray delivers a kamikaze performance that will be studied by drag queens for years to come.