Adultery. Domestic abuse. Gun-wielding kids. Hit men. Pills and booze. Interracial romance. Intergenerational romance. Quasi-incest. More adultery. Opera. Cancer. The holy trinity of God plus Jesus plus Stephen Dorff sodomizing a stooge with a splintered pool stick. And that’s just the first five minutes of Lee Daniels’ Oscar aspirant that goes for broke (and baroque) in its tale of a hitman named Mikey (Cuba Gooding Jr.), his foxy older lady (award-laden British thespian Helen Mirren), and the nuclear family of a gangsta’s estranged wife and newborn son that Mirren hopes will fill up his lonely heart after her malignant tumors take over.
Daniels was the producer behind Monster’s Ball and the ponderous Kevin-Bacon-as-pedophile flick The Woodsman, so he’s got a reason to think that an edgy concept plus luxurious cinematography makes a serious award season contender. Pity that no one dared tell him before he began shooting his directorial debut that large parts of William Lipz’s script popped up a decade ago on Melrose Place. Aaron Spelling must be rolling over in his 80-bedroom grave at the sumptuous treatment Daniels bestows on his soap opera plot. Thrumming pianos and copious religious symbolism? Jeez, just push somebody in the pool already.
Mikey, a graven Gooding Jr., was introduced to violence young. His dad spent his days “killing muthafuckas for a living,” and tended to take his work home with him in the evening. Mirren’s character Rose entered the picture when he was seven-years-old as his father’s mistress, and then stayed around to help raise the boy, which somehow led to them shacking up together as consenting (if creepy) adults. For the first half of the movie, it’s irritating that their sexual relationship is kept under the radar. Why contrive an edgy romance, brag in the press notes about your boundary-pushing and then refuse to run with it? Well, Virginia, because of the sheer awkwardness of watching Cuba Gooding Jr. strip to gangsta rap as the lovely Mirren grasps at his shirt and presses it to her nose. A few scenes later comes a protracted take designed to haunt your dreams of the dappled sun playing over Gooding’s rear as he pumps away at the genteel 61-year-old star of Gosford Park.
Mikey and Rose aren’t just enemies of the audience’s giggling reflexes. As the small, but deadly go-to executioners for Stephen Dorff’s violent playboy — a psychopath so wealthy that he keeps zebras — they’re subject to the whims of a killer who once shot three people just for chatting in the hallways while he was screwing his newest bimbo. Dorff wants most of Philadelphia dead, including his pregnant wife Vickie (pouty-lipped Vanessa Ferlito) and her best friend (a deliriously drunk and brassy Macy Gray). But when Vickie’s water breaks during the massacre, the terminally-ill Rose has a sudden pang of guilt at the wasting of more life and insists that they take the mother and child home with them as though their adoption is as simple as scooping an alley cat off the street.
To Cuba, in an acting performance focused so inward there seems to be a black hole in his chest, diapers make him more peevish than a sled team of huskies, but he grudgingly goes along with Mirren’s whimsy as long as their partners-in-crime, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mo’Nique (making her dramatic debut as a crackhead named Precious), stay silent. Just as this film can’t come to life when every frame has been over-gilded by ambition, it can’t be racially ground-breaking when every black female is an addict or a tramp. Daniels’ drama is no serious contender; it’s a burlesque of shock value trying to pass itself off as topical and poignant. Aaron Spelling may be slapping his forehead, but a few cemetery plots over, 1950’s melodrama king Douglas Sirk is smiling.
Originally published in the IE Weekly