When a director's first film is a huge success, acclaimed not just for its craftmanship but for its moral fervor, the anticipation surrounding his next effort can be enormous. Is it any wonder that his ego often inflates right along with our expectations? Convinced that he's an artist, maybe even a genius, a successful first-time filmmaker can fall into Hollywood's grandiose version of the sophomore slump, producing a movie that's all ''vision'' and no story, a movie driven by the director's overheated conviction that everything he films every line of dialogue, every elaborately composed shot is suddenly possessed of greatness. In doing so, he loses sight of the very quality that allowed us to respond to his work in the first place: its human perspective.
In Poetic Justice, his follow-up to the forceful inner-city drama Boyz N the Hood, the 25-year-old director John Singleton splatters his ambition all over the screen; he mixes up violence, romance, comedy, rage, and yes poetry. Yet he barely demonstrates the discipline to shape a scene. What, exactly, is Poetic Justice about? The movie tells the story of a young black woman from South Central Los Angeles, the proud but serenely good-tempered Justice (Janet Jackson), who loses her boyfriend in an act of gang violence. Traumatized, she becomes a hairdresser and begins scribbling mournful poems about her loneliness and her desire for love and emotional empowerment.
But wait. Poetic Justice is also a raucous, chaotic road comedy in which Justice, a postal worker named Lucky (Tupac Shakur), and another couple head up the Pacific Coast Highway for Oakland, Calif. (blink and you'll miss the reason they're going there), hurling insults at one another for most of the trip. The profane, loudmouthed characters seem to be on a crusade to dramatize their own superficiality. Singleton sets them up against one another in sour little duels, filling the movie with down-and-dirty grandstanding of the ''Shut up, bitch!'' variety. Yet Poetic Justice is also a desultory romantic fable in which the characters learn that as Justice writes in one of her poems ''Nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone.'' Everybody needs somebody sometime.
In other words, Poetic Justice is a dawdling mishmash of themes and moods. If the movie were simply too ambitious for its own good, one could applaud its intentions and pronounce it a passionate misfire, like Spike Lee's School Daze or Martin Scorsese's New York, New York. Poetic Justice, however, manages to be both inept and obnoxious. Though Singleton is triumphantly vague about what he wants to say, he insists on saying it with a suffocating air of self-importance. Time and again, a scene will ramble on into oblivion (the last half hour is an incoherent mess), yet you can bet it will feature at least one performer declaiming his or her point of view like a demagogue on a talk show. Even the relentless comic squabbling of the secondary couple, the boozing tease Iesha (Regina King) and her dim hunk of a boyfriend, Chicago (Joe Torry) whose personality consists entirely of brushing his fade every minute he's awake is used in a preachy way, as if these mad-as-hell cartoons embodied the cosmic breakdown in communication between black men and women.
Standing in the thick of it all yet also above it all is Justice, played by Janet Jackson as a preternaturally wise homegirl saint. Jackson isn't an inept actress, yet there are no more edges to her personality than there are to her plastic Kewpie-doll visage, which has become a facsimile of her brother Michael's during the Thriller era. The face that works in videos and on CD covers seems eerily fake and inexpressive under the intimate stare of the movie camera. In Poetic Justice, Jackson, with her little-girl voice, is a soft blur. Trying to keep the peace among her battling friends, reciting poetry on the soundtrack the words are by Maya Angelou with pious solemnity, she's like Sister Souljah reborn as an angelic guidance counselor. On the other hand, Tupac Shakur, who was so startling as the heavy-lidded sociopath in Ernest Dickerson's Juice, makes the ardent Lucky a complex and compelling figure, a testy romantic who sees in Justice a fellow lost soul but can't find the words to bridge their worlds. Shakur is the one performer on screen who doesn't seem to have drifted in from either a shrill sitcom or a convention of high school English teachers. With Poetic Justice, John Singleton has (at least temporarily) lost his way, but he may have found an actor who can help lead him back. C-