Nobody goes off the deep end the way Spike Lee does.
"Bamboozled," his 2000 smart bomb about the problematic history of black entertainment, left him more or less writhing on the floor, indignant and spent, like someone who'd caught the Holy Ghost at a tent revival.
Two movies later the director offers "She Hate Me," which takes less out of him but wants to get a lot more done.
A belligerent little sex farce roiling inside an otherwise inconsequential lampoon of corporate America, the movie is rude and ridiculous, fearless up to a point, and breathtakingly hungry to provoke. How could it not be? It follows a straight black yuppie and an armada of gay women who pay him to get them pregnant.
Jack Henry Armstrong (Anthony Mackie) is an executive at a biotech company that's eager to be first to put out an AIDS vaccine. One of the company's doctors, a tiny German fellow, instructs Jack to marry, then leaps from the building.
The doctor's death sends the company's bosses -- Ellen Barkin and Woody Harrelson -- into a shareholder-driven panic that sends the stock plunging and sets off waves of document shredding. Jack finds the lies unconscionable, so he drops a dime. This prompts a swift freezing of his bank account and makes him an instantly notorious whistle-blower.
By this point Lee had lost me, or at least bored me. Where could he be taking material so unoriginal and bland? Even Matthew Libatique's cinematography seemed colorless, like a jaundiced newspaper -- very old news.
Then something surprising happens: Kerry Washington shows up, all guile and cottony cunning, as Jack's gay ex-girlfriend Fatima, and suddenly the movie is back on track, ready to go the only place it really can at this point: nuts. Fatima is joined by her lover, Alex (Dania Ramirez), and they have a proposition for Jack. To help him maintain his upscale lifestyle, they each offer him five grand to impregnate them. He's incredulous: "I thought you were lesbians." They're serious: "We're businesswomen." Just like that, the movie makes sense again. From the opening credits, in which huge bills undulate like flags (George W. Bush's face is on the $3 bill), cash rules in "She Hate Me." In both elegant and graceless ways, Lee is asserting that anything can be commodified.
The director doesn't back away from the most controversial aspect of that assertion. Fatima essentially becomes Jack's pimp, brokering deals with lesbians who want the sperm of a man with an excellent education, big earning potential, and a high IQ.
The deals are sealed in a pair of amazing montages that are both erotic and comic. Animated interludes show Jack's face pasted onto the sperm, wriggling toward their destination.
When one reaches its egg, the face of the woman who's gotten pregnant breaks out in Zen bliss. That these women -- including the Italian actress Monica Bellucci -- enjoy Jack is not a problem. Mackie is a sexy, thoughtful actor, not an industrial-strength turkey baster. For Jack, the money is meant to be a prophylactic against the thorny moral, ethical, and racial-myth issues his baby making raises. Still, Jack is living an uptown version of a lowly lad-mag fantasy: conversion sex. And the movie struggles between the audaciousness of its premise and an underlying defensiveness.The title, which refers to He Hate Me, football player Rod Smart's old XFL nom de gridiron, sounds like a jokey rebuke to people who've called Lee a misogynist. Yet when Lee tries to sober up "She Hate Me" with apology, to stitch a heart on its sleeve, the movie feels untrue to itself.
In its final third, Lee attempts to redeem the explosive ideas through an implausible emotional leap. Eighteen pregnant lesbians and one outrageously didactic Senate trial later, Jack wants to end his insemination business in favor of being a responsible family man, a notion that's sealed with an exasperating act of pseudo-progressive family building.
But one doesn't leave "She Hate Me" certain that Lee has found a greater appreciation for gays, women, or families. Some of these are old complaints. But rather than revise or reconsider his positions, he merely reinforces them. Beginning with "She's Gotta Have It," sex is a vast playground for political and social mischief in Spike Lee's world.
"She Hate Me" is his most elaborate jungle gym. For all his irreverence, Lee still seems uncertain how to convey deep, adult feeling without seeming obligated to feel.
Wesley Morris can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.