Friday, December 28, 2007

Drippin' Honey

Honeydripper, which Emerging Pictures opens today, confirms that John Sayles would make a better playwright than filmmaker. When a friend told me that his latest film as writer and director was "a John Sayles movie, like every other John Sayles movie," it wasn't really a dig; it's just that Sayles, at the vanguard of American independent cinema, has been tilling this soil for 30 years now, and hasn't much changed. Set in 1950's Alabama, Honeydripper has the two hallmarks of a Sayles movie: Meaty, dialogue-rich roles for underappreciated or underused performers like Danny Glover and Charles S. Dutton, and a fundamental humanism, which is always welcome. But, though veteran cinematographer Dick Pope applies a soft and frequently delicious glow to the Deep South locations, Sayles' basic filmmaking style is stagebound. I know he wanted to get the gifted Lisa Gay Hamilton and Mary Steenburgen together for a scene, and they are expectedly lovely together. Onstage, their segment might captivate you.

As the camera sits there, though, away from the main focus of Danny Glover trying to keep the failing juke joint of the title running till a much-anticipated concert can reverse its fortunes, you can't help but get impatient. Sayles doesn't much edit like a filmmaker; he's not ruthless enough to pare away and save a gem or two for the DVD. His movies can be tough-minded, and they can be lyrical, too; City of Hope and Passion Fish, from the early 90s, are the filmmaker's yin and yang. But they can also wander, and fall into a turgid heavy-handedness, and there is a forced mystical element here involving a blind man figure from Glover's checkered past that is alien to his down-to-earth sensibility. (The movie plays with stereotypes, though, being emotionally contained like all his films, never raucously.)

What I think Sayles was trying to paint was a picture of how the blues went electric and became rock and roll in the humblest African-American communities, and he picked the right person, charismatic Austin guitar and blues performer Gary Clark, Jr., as the bridge between the two worlds. (He is also Glover's meal ticket, once he's sprung from cotton-picking duty overseen by Stacy Keach, who with so many law enforcement parts under his belt could probably run for sheriff at this point.) But as Sayles honey-drips in subplots here and there what might have been a rich portrait is obscured.

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