DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
JUNGLE FEVER (director/writer: Spike Lee; cinematographer: Ernest Dickerson; editor: Sam Pollard; music: Terence Blanchard/Stevie Wonder; cast: Wesley Snipes (Flipper Purify), Annabella Sciorra (Angie Tucci), Spike Lee (Cyrus), Ossie Davis (Doctor Purify), Ruby Dee (Lucinda Purify), Samuel L. Jackson (Gator Purify), John Turturro (Paulie Carbone), Lonette McKee (Drew Purify), Anthony Quinn (Lou Carbone), Frank Vincent (Mike Tucci), Tyra Ferrel (Orin Goode), Halle Berry (Vivian), Veronica Timbers (Ming Purify), Nicholas Turturro (Vinny), David Dundara (Charlie Tucci), Michael Imperioli (Jimmy Tucci), Debi Mazar (Denise), Brad Dourif (Leslie), Tim Robbins (Jerry), Queen Latifah (Waitress), Veronica Webb (Vera); Runtime: 131; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Spike Lee; MCA Universal Home Video; 1991)

 
"Always provocative."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz 

Spike Lee ("Do The Right Thing"/"Mo' Better Blues"/"She's Gotta Have It") directs a polemical film about interracial romance that is powerful but gets sidetracked with a hard-hitting subplot about crack-addiction ruining black neighborhoods, that takes away from the main story as the two tales never mix well together though both are well-executed, superbly acted, never dull and always provocative. The main story is about racial tensions causing family animosity on both sides, of polar opposite families residing in  the NYC communities of black Harlem and in the mainly Italian-American Bensonhurst. The drug story draws too much attention away from pursuing the exploration of racial tensions in an urban setting story, leaving it too distracted to draw a fully realized conclusion.

Happily married African-American Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) is a successful Manhattan architect living in Harlem with his light-skinned (her father is white and mother is black) Bloomingdale's buyer wife Drew (Lonette McKee) and their cheerful bright elementary school daughter Ming (Veronica Timbers). His firm's hiring of the attractive Italian-American Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra) as an office temp results in an extra-marital fling for Flipper. When he tells his best friend Cyrus (Spike Lee), he immediately tells his wife and she tells Drew. As a result Drew throws hubby out. When Angie tells her widower dad (Frank Vincent), he beats her up and throws her out. Angie's longtime boyfriend Paulie Carbone (John Turturro), whom she never loved, is a sensitive soul who runs his elderly father's candy store. Paulie is disappointed, but soon gets over his heartbreak and now only wishes to get on with his life.

The interracial couple's relationship is covered in a series of reaction shots, as the couple move in together and face racist reactions from friends. Which give way to the following observations: Drew's lady friends hold a war council on the split-up and chat vehemently about the successful black man and his need for status by scoring a white woman to showoff that he's arrived in the big-time, trigger-happy cops thinking Flipper's a rapist when seen in the street play fighting, a racist black waitress (Queen Latifah) who gives the couple poor service and some lip while they're dining at Harlem's Sylvia's.

It leads to Lee, through his teacher character Cyrus, pointing out that the interracial couple are drawn together not by love but by attraction (which Lee calls jungle fever), sexual myths and curiosity about the other race. The sharply observed relationship story runs into the story of Flipper's older far-gone crack-head brother Gator (Samuel L. Jackson), who breaks the hearts of his elderly parents-his puritanical unforgiving pious former Baptist preacher father (Ossie Davis) and his nurturing forgiving mother Lucinda (Ruby Dee). Detested by his stern father, Gator begs money from his soft-hearted mother and does a shuffle dance to please her every time he asks. When he doesn't get money, he steals their color TV.

Lee's observations are well-taken, but when he tosses out his jungle fever theory he raises more questions than he answers. The result is an inspired but messy pic, one that never spends enough serious time with the couple for us to see what really attracts them to each other, other than a roll in the hay. Lee never gives his main characters any depth, but leaves them out there as stereotypes without delving into what's inside them. Nevertheless Lee throws enough into the mix to make it an engrossing watch, that could have been even better if more focused and more probing.

REVIEWED ON 4/26/2011       GRADE: B

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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