I watched Crooklyn, Spike Lee’s new film, with the feeling I’ve often had about his work: that his strengths and weaknesses as an artist are so jumbled together they’re practically one and the same. Set in a lower- middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood during the early 1970s, this loosely autobiographical drama about a big, cantankerous family (four boys, one girl, two proudly embattled parents) is a kind of domestic companion piece to Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a vibrant cross section of African-American life in which the urban community itself functions, once again, as an extended family. Scripted by Lee and two of his siblings (his sister, Joie, and brother Cinque), Crooklyn has a warm, nostalgic, spilling-over-the-edges effusiveness that is new to Lee’s work. At the same time, the movie often seems every bit as high-strung as the family it’s about. It seldom relaxes enough simply to let a little bit of life pass by.
Following an opening-credits sequence that puts you in a happy trance-kids playing ’70s sidewalk games under the sunniest skies imaginable-we move inside the Carmichael family’s three-story brownstone, which turns out to be a pressure cooker of domestic squabbles. The father, Woody (Delroy Lindo), a jazz composer-performer (modeled on Lee’s own musician father), would rather stay true to his music than hire himself out as a rock sideman to put bread on the table. This doesn’t sit too well with his wife, Carolyn (Alfre Woodard), a stern matriarch obsessed with keeping her family on the straight and narrow, even if she has to turn herself into a shrewish disciplinarian to do it.
The Carmichael kids seem to have taken their combative cues from their parents; for this mostly preteen wolf pack, fighting and playing are just different words for the same activity. It’s a major, roughhousing event when 10-year-old Troy (Zelda Harris), a beautiful child with seashells dangling from her braids, squirms onto a bed to watch TV with her brothers. Pop culture, it seems, is all that can tame these kids: Piping along with the Partridge Family as they sing ”I Woke Up in Love This Morning,” they’re no less fervent than the most starry-eyed gospel choir. (This, Lee seems to be saying, is true American multiculturalism.) At the dinner table, one brother’s refusal to eat his black-eyed peas turns into a wild comic showdown. Rancor, delight, petty insubordination: All seem different aspects of the same roisterous household turmoil.
Yet even as I was enjoying these moments (and there are many more), I couldn’t help but notice that something was off. In Crooklyn, events are piled on top of one another with such aggressive momentum that the movie doesn’t quite breathe. Lee, working without the net of a conventional plot, establishes an atmosphere of bullyragging chaos, but then he can’t seem to let go of it. Instead of developing his material, he punches up the noise and sass and slathers a soundtrack of ’70s R&B hits on top of virtually every scene, letting the songs (”Everybody Is a Star,” ”ABC”) do the work for him. At times, Crooklyn suggests a giant video with words. The energized beauty of the music drives the film, but it also prevents Lee from creating moments of true intimacy. He’d rather turn the Carmichaels into a bellicose cartoon. I wish Alfre Woodard had something to play besides tough-love tantrums; her Carolyn seems little more than a well-intentioned prison-camp guard. And doesn’t this family ever have a moment of downtime, a single afternoon when the kids get tired of fighting? Why, too, are the four brothers so undifferentiated?
Gradually, we realize that young Troy is the film’s heroine-we’re meant to be taking in the action through her eyes-but what this means is that, with the exception of Delroy Lindo’s stubborn, tender-souled Woody, she’s the only character in the movie who completely comes into focus. Newcomer Zelda Harris is the rare child actress who doesn’t try to woo us with her adorableness. Her Troy is feisty and tough, a tomboy on the verge of bloom. As the movie goes on, she engages in her pet pastime (shoplifting), spends hours in front of the bathroom mirror wishing for breasts, and gets sent on an extended vacation to her relatives in the South-a sequence that Lee renders as a kind of goofy suburban nightmare by filming it entirely through a distorting lens. By the time we’ve decided that there isn’t something wrong with the projectionist, the message is clear: Troy has come to a place that feels as weird as the warped world of white people. Yet the visual gimmick is telling in the way it imposes this point of view on the audience rather than conveying it dramatically. In the end, that’s really an extension of the entire film’s method. For all its raucous spontaneity, Crooklyn never lets the audience forget that Spike Lee is at the controls. What appears to be artistry may in fact be an overdose of artistry.