Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 42: White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where White Men Can’t Jump (1992) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 159 of the first edition hardback, Ebert nostalgically discusses the value of well-written dialogue. He writes, “The big difference between today’s dialogue and the dialogue of years ago is that the characters have grown stupid. They say what is needed to advance the plot and get their laughs by their delivery of four-letter words. Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical. Today it is flat. So flat that when a movie allows its characters to think fast and talk the same way, the result is invigorating, as in […] the first thirty minutes of White Men Can’t Jump

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “What the movie knows is how the game is played in the tough urban circles where these guys operate. The director, Ron Shelton, who also wrote the screenplay, knows how his characters talk and sound, and how they get into each other’s minds with nonstop taunting and boasting. The language is one of the great joys of this film, not just because of its energy and spirit (most of the characters are gifted verbal improvisers) but because of its originality. The usual four-letter words and their derivatives are upstaged by some of the most creative and bizarre insults I have ever heard in a movie.” -from his 1992 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

Legendary indie scene auteur Spike Lee is nominated for two major Oscar categories this year, Best Director & Bet Picture, which is a remarkable achievement for a film as formally bizarre & politically angry as BlacKkKlansman. It’s a hype cycle that’s stirred up a lot of memories of other times when Lee was a hot ticket in the industry, not least of all because his latest film’s nomination among Pete Farrelly’s disastrous feel-good race relations drama Green Book feels like a repeat of when Lee’s iconic work Do the Right Thing lost the Best Picture Oscar to Driving Miss Daisy in 1990. Spike Lee may be an established legend in the industry by now, making his road to Oscar accolades less of an uphill battle, but Hollywood’s relationship with his deliberately divisive, provocative work has always been oddly hot & cold. They’re willing to nominate him for Oscars, but only as a long-shot underdog against more palatable, bullshit-caked films like Driving Miss Daisy & Green Book. There was apparently even a time when Hollywood was willing to emulate Spike Lee’s aesthetic instead of, you know, funding his work directly. 1992’s basketball court gambling drama White Men Can’t Jump feels unmistakably like watching White Studio Execs attempt to reverse-engineer the wide-audience friendly version of a Spike Lee joint in a boardroom, borrowing his fashion & aesthetic, but ditching all of the pesky politics that get in the way of the fun. Usually, Hollywood settles for undervaluing Spike Lee’s work by awarding its more sanitized rivals like Green Book; with White Men Can’t Jump, the industry instead attempted to transform his work into Green Book, which at least takes more chutzpa.

White Men Can’t Jump stars Wesley Snipes (who also starred in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever one year prior) as a low-level basketball hustler & Rosie Perez (who starred in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing three years prior) as an alcoholic trivia addict. Except that it doesn’t star either of those actors at all. Instead, our POV-centering protagonist is a compulsive gambler played by affable white man Woody Harrelson, who profits off the Southern California black community’s underestimation of white boy street cred. His main value as a basketball hustler is that his unsuspecting marks don’t know to fear his skill on the court because of his lily-white skin. He’s occasionally out-hustled himself and much of the drama derives from his crippling gambling addiction, but that does little to soften to blow of this being a film about how white people can be just as good at basketball as anybody else, so you shouldn’t be too prejudiced against their athleticism. Wesley Snipes plays a loud-mouthed schemer who works countless jobs & grifts to help realize his wife’s dream of moving to the safety of the suburbs. Perez plays an alcoholic trivia nerd who aspires to be the world’s foremost Jeopardy champion in what has to be her best, most outlandish character work outside the plane crash PTSD drama Fearless. Yet, we see the film through the eyes of an annoyingly bland white man anti-hero, one whose vocabulary includes such lovely phrases as “negro,” “faggot,” “reverse discrimination,” “Farrakhan disciple son of a bitch,” and the frequently-repeated refrain “Shut the fuck up,” usually directed at his lovely girlfriend. The movie even pauses dead-still for a minute so he can whitesplain Jimi Hendrix to his hustling partner, which 100% would have been a scene in Green Book if it were set ten years later. It’s very frustrating.

White Man Can’t Jump does have flashes of charm, even beyond the stellar character work from Rosie Perez. If nothing else, it’s an excellent 90s fashion lookbook, modeling an extensive line of Spike Lee-inspired athletic wear on the basketball courts of Venice Beach, CA. The film’s attempt to echo Lee’s focus on slang dialogue often leads to a solid one-liner in an insult comedy context, as this is just as much a trash-talking movie as it is a basketball movie. Besides Rosie Perez’s surreal Jeopardy quest, the best sequences of the film are the documentarian portraits of the buskers, hustlers, and weirdos of Venice Beach and the ceremonial trading of “Yo Mama” jokes between basketball sessions. Those are only incidental, mood-setting details in the greater purpose of tracking the ups & downs of one fish-out-of-water white man’s ego, however, a choice in protagonist that kneecaps the movie before it can even get itself running. Workman director Ron Shelton doesn’t even have the decency to rip off the exaggerated Ernest Dickerson flourishes of Spike Lee’s cinematography, settling instead for the same flat sports drama approach he took with Bull Durham, Blue Chips, and Tin Cup, as if it were a one-size-fits-all technique. I want to say White Men Can’t Jump is worthwhile for Rosie Perez’s character work and for the sartorial pleasures of its 90s fashion lookbook, but the film is ultimately too phony, too repetitive, and too politically awkward to enjoy for any five minute stretch without a vicious cringe interrupting your pleasure. And yet, this is the movie that was playing on TV when I was a kid, not Do the Right Thing. And still, Green Book has a much better chance of winning the Best Picture Oscar this weekend than BlacKkKlansman. Go figure.

Roger’s Rating: (3.5/4, 88%)

Brandon’s Rating: (2.5/5, 50%)

Next Lesson: Ikiru (1952)

-Brandon Ledet

Il cartaio (aka The Card Player, 2004)

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Roughly ten to fifteen years ago, poker was everywhere. The boom of internet-based video poker played a huge role in the game’s rising profile, and as more people got to experience the game and hone their skills in a low-risk environment, suddenly everyone was an expert. The World Series of Poker became must-see television, or else you would be left out of the watercooler conversation the next day; at night, USA Network would force teenagers across the country to wait an interminable thirty minutes to see Strip Poker contestants in their underwear. If you could poker-ify a product, you could sell it, as obsession with the card game brought poker to a point of cultural saturation that normally only your Seinfelds and your Cosbys get to enjoy. It’s not hard to imagine why; poker is like the lovechild of lottery and sport, allowing players (and viewers, by proxy) to experience the pure adrenaline thrill of wagering on something that combines strategy with luck. Like all fads, it eventually faded away, but not before several filmmakers tried to herd gullible people into theatres by making poker a focal point; search Google for “movies about poker,” and you’ll see that most of the results come from 2003-2008. For better or worse, Dario Argento was one of those directors.

The script that would eventually become Il cartaio (The Card Player, 2004) began as an idea about a sadist challenging the police to a game of poker. He also envisioned the film as a sequel to The Stendhal Syndrome, revisiting Inspector Anna Manni (presumably rehabilitated following her psychotic break in that film). When his daughter was not available to reprise her role, Argento reworked the script; since I went into this film with that knowledge, it’s impossible for me to say how much of the narrative is a holdover from its previous incarnation and how much of it merely seems that way because I was subconsciously looking for connections, but those apparent connections, be they real or imagined, fail to make this a standout film. Despite some new ideas, The Card Player feels as if it was dated from the moment of its release, and often plays more like a television procedural than a movie from one of the great living directors.

Inspector Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) is an investigator who believes in healthy living and keeping her personal and professional lives separate, much to the chagrin of Carlo Sturni (Claudio Santamaria), a fellow officer. Mari begins to receive messages from a serial killer known as the Card Player, who challenges the department to a game of online video poker with the prize being the life of a young woman who is hooked up to a live feed, to be killed or freed, depending on whether or not the police can beat him in three hands. The police commissioner (Adalberto Maria Merli) initially refuses to play along, and the first victim is a British tourist whose murder brings in Irish-born London-detective-in-exile John Brennan (Liam Cunningham, aka Ser Davos the Onion Knight of Game of Thrones). The killer’s second victim dies when Sturni fails to beat the killer’s hand, and Brennan and Mari’s investigation brings them to young student Remo (Silvio Muccino), a poker prodigy whom Mari enlists to help them win against the murderer, or at least keep him online long enough to track. The third victim almost escapes uring the game, but is recaptured and killed. Meanwhile, Mari staves off a home invasion by the killer, which leads to her becoming romantically entangled with Brennan. then the fourth victim turns out to be the commissioner’s daughter (Fiore Argento), can she be saved in time?

The biggest problem with Cartaio is that it’s toothless and small. A contemporary New York Times review dismissively compared the film to CSI, but its focus on a culturally ubiquitous fad reminded me more of one of those tone deaf and out-of-touch episodes of Law & Order, where they try to tackle something like Bronies or Gamergate and completely fail to grasp it as a concept. Aside from Mari, who comes across as vulnerable but competent and self-assured, the characters are flat, and any personality they have is painted in the broadest of strokes. Cunningham tries his best to breathe life into the paper-thin alcoholic disgraced cop cliché with which he’s saddled, but there was only so much he could do with what was on the page. The other cops are virtually indistinguishable from one another, and it’s a testament to how irrelevant the characters are that the actor behind the killer isn’t even credited on the movie’s Wikipedia page. It’s a big step back from the best thing about Sleepless, which is a shame.

The film is not without its merits, however. As mentioned above, Rocca’s Mari leaves a distinct impression, and the sequence that revolves around her fending off the killer in her home is a tense one that calls to mind a similar sequence in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark, in which blind Audrey Hepburn extinguishes all the lights in her home and puts herself and an invader on equal footing on her terms. Muccino’s Remo is also a likable screen presence, which makes his sudden death (as well as Brennan’s) all the more shocking. That’s not to say that I would have made the same storytelling choices, but it is an effectively sudden change after the first 70% of the film’s murders were displayed in a more distanced fashion, from the other side of a small chat window (again contributing to the film’s sanitized, crime-procedural aesthetic).

Overall, the lukewarm critical response to Cartaio is commensurate to its reheated plot. There’s nothing novel about the motivations of any of the characters, and making video poker the central focus of originality in the film was a mistake. The musical composition is simply terrible in places, and even the characters agree, as Mari eventually shoots and destroys a car stereo that has been playing the electronica score diegetically (you can get a taste of it in the film’s horrible, dialogue-free trailer; now imagine that playing in roughly half of a two hour movie). The romance between Mari and Brennan feels forced, and the plot reveal of “yeah, he’s dead, but she’s pregnant now, so hooray!” is trite and reductive. Sure, the ending, in which the killer chains both himself and Mari to train tracks and forces her to play very slow video poker to save her life, makes sense thematically. That still wouldn’t make for an exciting climax to an episode of the kinds of shows that Cartaio cribs from, let alone a feature. It’s not the worst Argento, but it doesn’t hover very far above the bottom either.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond