In Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, the young Brooklyn jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) enjoys a life of laid-back hedonism. Bleek, who whiles away the afternoons practicing, leads his quintet through nightly sets at a plush local club and Ping-Pongs between two women who adore him — the modest, devoted Indigo (played by the director’s sister, Joie Lee, who bears a disarming resemblance to Prince), and Clarke (Cynda Williams), a flirtatious beauty who sees right through him. Both women complain that Bleek is selfish, and they’re right. Yet he’s not a bastard. He simply has no concept of anything outside his own pleasure centers. He is, first and foremost, a musician — and, like so many of his ilk, he’s a closed circuit, a full-time connoisseur of the sounds in his head (and the clamorings of his libido).

Thus far, Spike Lee has made movies as a live-wire sociologist. Last year’s Do the Right Thing was, for all its flair and attack, a kind of mesmerizing cartoon of urban-racial strife. Lee could dig deep inside contemporary racial attitudes because his film was about attitudes. That was its strength and its limitation. What Lee hasn’t done — until now — is explore the emotional ridges of a character like Bleek, a man who, rather than occupying some symbolic space in the world at large, is a world unto himself.

The resulting film is at once alluring and disappointing. When the members of Bleek’s quintet are backstage bickering about their salaries or needling one another about women, or when Bleek, at home, seduces the saucy Clarke by confessing — with a veteran Lothario’s practiced sincerity — what an amoral sensualist he is, Lee achieves a hypnotic intimimy that evokes the films of Martin Scorsese.

Yet Lee’s weaknesses as a filmmaker have never been more glaring. The truth is that his stylized approach — the characters explaining themselves instead of just interacting — has come to seem a form of dramatic shallowness. Lee, it’s obvious, is a much better director than he is a screenwriter. Mo’ Better Blues repeatedly draws back from its characters, exchanging intimacy for shtick and, in the end, lapsing into half-baked psychodrama.

Onstage, the Bleek Quintet are inheritors of many decades of hipster showmanship. Hidden behind sunglasses, they turn their immersion in the music into a form of theater. Offstage, they’re black urban professionals (buppies) who live in sleek, expensive pads. What they’ve grown past (what, some might say, Lee wipes clean) is the fabled decadence of the jazz life: the drugs and the excess. These are just happy young fellows living high and enjoying the status of rock stars.

They also have rock stars’ egos. Bleek, a control freak, needs to dominate every relationship he’s in. Now his girlfriends are getting fed up with him, and he has been drawn into an explosive rivalry with his saxophone player, Shadow Henderson (the terrific Wesley Snipes), a more flamboyant — and maybe more talented — musician than he is. Their conflict springs in part from Bleek’s loyalty to the band’s flaky manager, Giant (Spike Lee), a compulsive gambler who loses thousands betting on baseball games when he should be out negotiating a better contract for his clients.

Lee does a more dapper variation on his wheedling child-man character. As always, he’s fun to watch, but his presence helps to deflate the drama (even if it lures fans into the theater). It may be time he sat one of his movies out.

Mo’ Better Blues could be described as a morality play about the parameters of pleasure. When Lee finally gets around to giving his autobiographical?) hero a comeuppance, he doesn’t fool around. In the film’s absurdly — and disastrously — compressed final section, Bleek, now broken in two, suddenly reinvents himself as ”responsible” man. In the process, he gives up everything we enjoyed about him. The subtle bravado of Denzel Washington’s performance is made to seem callow. Yet it’s really Lee’s sour moralism that’s callow. It’s one thing to chasten Bleek for being selfish. Does he have to be guilty for being a musician, too? B-

Mo' Better Blues
  • Movie
  • 130 minutes