If Mel Brooks had tacked an hourlong condemnation of the Holocaust onto “The Producers” (1968), complete with shots of concentration camps and mass graves, the result might have resembled Spike Lee’s deeply impassioned but extremely disappointing new film. The first half of “Bamboozled” is a dark satire about the propensity of the television industry either to ignore African-American realities or to depict them stupidly; it’s rather ragged and too often hamfisted, but also sporadically penetrating, funny and provocative. Then, however, the picture goes into polemical mode, abandoning any satirical perspective and adopting in its place a clumsily melodramatic tone; by the denouement there’s more death and gunplay than in a Tarantino flick, and the air has become thick with portentious and pretentious didacticism. The scalpel that Lee employs at the beginning, though not ideally sharp, has been transformed into a bludgeon by the close.
“Bamboozled” focuses on Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), an effete, Harvard-educated fellow who’s the sole black executive at a TV network; badgered by his fast-talking, obtuse boss (Michael Rapaport) to come up with some new and exciting programming, Pierre, enraged at the suggestion that he might be out of touch with his race, sarcastically pitches the notion of a minstrel show starring two street entertainers whom he’s renamed Mantan (Savion Glover) and Sleep ‘n Eat (Tommy Davidson). He expects that the offensiveness of the concept will shame his superiors, but much to his chagrin not only do they embrace the idea, but the show turns out to be an astronomical hit, a smash which has people of all races eagerly adopting black-face makeup in the latest pop-culture fad.
So far, so good–the plot hinges on the notion of unexpected consequences in producing a piece of entertainment, much as “The Producers” did. But even in this segment of the picture, there are major problems. Wayans, using an exaggeratedly adenoidal voice and extravagant hand gestures, is more a sketch caricature than a credible human being as Delacroix, and Rapaport is aggressively unamusing as his boss. There are also difficulties with the figure of Pierre’s lovestruck assistant, played by Jada Pinkett Smith; she alternately supports Delacroix’s scheme and then bitterly opposes it, so that we’re never certain where the character is supposed to stand. Nor are the excerpts we’re shown from the minstrel show funny enough to convince us that the program could ever become the runaway success it’s claimed to be; the same problem afflicted the bits of “Springtime for Hitler” we were shown in “The Producers,” but the effect here is even worse. On the other hand, Davidson (fresh from rehab, one suspects) is energetic, and Glover (the sensation of Broadway’s “Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk”) dances wonderfully and manages to bring a hint of pathos to his character.
Everything collapses, however, after protests occur against the program (Al Sharpton and Johnnie Cochran offer cameos that are singularly unimpressive), and Pinkett’s rapper brother, played by Mos Def, plots some very public revenge against its creators. The mood turns sour and unbearably preachy, and the characters are made to act in ways that exhibit no consistency or sense. A final montage showing degrading portrayals of African-Americans in American media over the decades is well-done, but renders the piece even more obvious and hectoring.
The fault lies with Lee, of course: he remains an exceptionally gifted filmmaker, but his writing and helming here demonstrate no penchant for satire; and his decision to use digital cameras leaves the picture with a bleached, washed-out look that is extraordinarily unattractive from any artistic perspective (too many sequences, moreover, are badly oversaturated with light). “Bamboozled” surely impresses a viewer with Lee’s sense of outrage and commitment, but one’s admiration for his goals can’t compensate for a final product that’s shapeless, logy and, by the close, crushingly unsubtle. His ability is on far better display in “The Original Kings of Comedy,” which proves not only far funnier but somehow more authentic in its presentation of the African-American experience. There’s a brief scene in “Bamboozled” showing Delacroix’s father, an old-fashioned comic, doing a standup routine; it has the same verve and style that the four stars exhibit in “Kings,” and, truth to tell, it’s the best part of the new picture. Otherwise Lee’s intensity overwhelms his talent; no amount of clever camera tricks and jagged editing can conceal the flimsiness of concept and tonal incongruity that mark “Bamboozled.”