Josie and the Pussycats; Morgan Freeman in Along Came a Spider

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Remember the Spice Girls? Their bawdy individuality is what's missing from Josie and the Pussycats, a movie so caught up in synergy?the new evil of the commercial world?that it cannot adequately spoof the consumerism it worships. This comic book/tv cartoon adaptation presents Rachael Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson and Tara Reid as a girl rock band turned into the human clones that now define mainstream pop. It's nothing to laugh about, especially when every scene contains product placement.

Not even as lively as Spice World (girl pop has declined drastically in the past three years), Josie and the Pussycats isn't a very good product after all. It knowingly insults the teen adult it exploits and the adult audience it cynically panders to by making explicit the Mobius-strip surrealism of interwoven commerce. (The ploy might work if all the products had made-up, jokey names rather than showing off the actual stultifying logos.) Parker Posey provides the one amusing element as a rapacious record company exec with monomaniacal plans. A reminder of when individuality used to be prized in pop, she's like a good pop record?quickly trashed.

Along Came a Spider
Directed by Lee Tamahori

Can Morgan Freeman become a superstar? That's the only genuine suspense in Along Came a Spider. It's clear from his participation as coproducer that he considers this prequel to 1997's Kiss the Girls his ticket to the big time and a way to achieve and improve the Denzel effect?a black actor who can reach a wide, liberal public by means of a conventional narrative with humanist appeal. Alex Cross, the forensic psychologist Morgan Freeman plays in the film, is described as "a damaged cop." But that's said by a character who hasn't yet learned how wonderful Cross is. An informed audience of moviegoers presumably will have followed Cross here after Freeman first essayed the part in Kiss the Girls. They know that Cross is a paradigm of judgment and empathy combining Sherlock Holmesian-Sigmund Freudian hunches.

A single scene shows Cross' private life, in conversation with his wife, played by Anna Maria Horsford. ("Don't you know forgiving yourself is the one thing a person cannot do?") Among Along Came a Spider's other dramatic setups, that's an obvious attempt to turn Freeman into a more profound genre hero by making him bear mankind's cross the way he did in Seven. It was in Seven that Freeman finally transcended his career-making roles in Street Smart and Driving Miss Daisy (leaving the meretricious black stereotypes to others) and took on fatherly sagacity?a rare opportunity to display virtues Hollywood could only sanction in the midst of Seven's moral chaos or the apocalyptic threat of Deep Impact, where he played the last president of the United States. Freeman's quiet superheroism in the Alex Cross assignments involved tracking down a serial killer in Kiss the Girls and here follows a master criminal's clues to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a politician. The contrivances?including elaborate cover-ups, wild goose chases and FBI and local precinct turf wars?are typical skull-stuffing. (The heavily advertised "shock" ending makes it difficult to discuss details; just know that the climax is less a surprise and more of an illogical trick anyway.) It's only the spectacle of Freeman dizzily maneuvering around plot holes that holds interest. Can he turn a sow's ear into Vertigo?

First Freeman has to overcome traditional Hollywood resistance to portraying heroic black intelligence. Describing Cross as "damaged" complicates his saintliness by making him seem psychologically dubious?or as morally gray as the movie's twisted-yet-pathetic villain. This creditable approach to characterization winds up half-assed because Along Came a Spider repeatedly ignores all character complication for the simplicity of providing Freeman with his own Hollywood franchise vehicle. Cross is always seen scoring points on the other investigators, including Jezzie (Monica Potter), the young blonde Secret Service agent; it's through her ineptitude that the kidnapping happened and her tremulousness solicits Cross' compassion. The opening sequence, detailing the source of Cross' "damage," features a profane, wildly overamped criminal investigation in which a female police colleague entraps a suspected serial killer yet ends up in a fatal, cliff-hanging accident while Cross looks on helplessly. It's a serviceable setup, repeating the prologue in Vertigo with some promise. Certainly Freeman is up to James Stewart's fine sensitivity (Cross worries over his own guilt, develops a morbid complex, hides from the world even while shutting out his wife). There's a good chance that Freeman and his chosen director Lee Tamahori might break through the detective movie format just as Stewart and Hitchcock did, and it comes down to Freeman's soothing voice and the pained, incredulous expressions on his face.

Freeman offers soulfulness where Denzel Washington offers sex (or at least the hint of sex that became a false lead in the romantically segregated The Pelican Brief). And though Cross almost achieves Maigret-like status, suggesting a figure who reflects the tensions of his community (at least more so than Denzel's phony intensity in Devil in a Blue Dress), his soulfulness gets poured into a void. Except for the moment Cross encounters special agent Kyle Craig (Jay O. Sanders), whose appearance recalls his double cross in Kiss the Girls (this flash-forward frisson has a more humane effect than anything in the meaningless, overwrought Memento), there's little sense of Cross traversing recognizable social complications. In the best scene, Cross listens to the bad guy's incoherent ravings (Michael Wincott doing his usual compelling freakiness). When this cipher alludes to unspoken racial tension with a bizarre pun ("A mind is a terrible thing"), Freeman stares back at him with cold, unforgettable contempt. Some invisible line has been trespassed, and you shiver at the complex of offended politics and politesse that Freeman summons up.

One would expect more of the same from Tamahori, the director of 1995's powerful Maori melodrama Once Were Warriors. But when few blacks (or political awareness) intrude upon Along Came a Spider's social investigation, the threat of banality is the heaviest cross that pop star Freeman has to bear. He has unavoidably assumed an updated version of the Supernegro mantel that once belonged to Sidney Poitier. For almost any other actor, that would be a groaning burden, but it is precisely Freeman's age and gravity, letting Cross' intellect take precedence over guns and fists, that at times connects Along Came a Spider to Poitier's unsurpassed cultural significance?the phenomenon of a black movie star actually corresponding with generalized social presumptions. Cross' contemplative manner, his calm, mature movements achieve social rapprochement that's become impossible for the trendy, hyped-up, fake aggression of younger black stars (Chris Rock in Down to Earth, DMX in Exit Wounds say nothing to anyone). The way Freeman's Cross sustains black interaction with the white world?even symbolically?achieves what Freeman has long been ingenuous about articulating, but that was magnificently apparent when he jump-started the 1980 Brubaker as the wild-haired prisoner in solitary singing "Respect" in Robert Redford's face: now as then he maintains personal (and group) integrity.

Tamahori, who is also struggling for career dignity as a director, works with thoughtful, stylish proficiency that raises the level of this routine actioner. But Along Came a Spider loses character richness when, instead, it finally emphasizes noise, superficial intrigue and?in the attempt to be tasteful?a curiously bloodless unease. Spider's formulaic script (by Marc Moss) prevents Tamahori from doing more than making nodding acknowledgment of better films. Vertigo and De Palma's Blow Out (emulated in a train station chase sequence) become crutches for Freeman and Tamahori in their determined opposition to the most stubborn Hollywood hegemonies?evident in the depiction of women and the pigeonholing of black men. Cross' commiseration with Jezzie contrasts the interracial inanities of Denzel and Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief and Samuel L. Jackson's white-girl flirtation in 187. Those stereotypes can barely be eradicated without radical subversion (though there's subversive wit in how Potter's uncanny resemblance to Julia Roberts is used here to suggest a perverse Julia Roberts). As if deliberating replaying (and critiquing) the self-righteousness of those awful films, Freeman and Tamahori surpass gender and racial diffidence for scenes of actual communication.

Along Came a Spider isn't daring enough to go deeply into Cross' (or the filmmakers' own) sense of guilt. Didn't they learn anything from the recent reissue of Vertigo? Freeman and Tamahori need to go further with their own truth rather than dressing up action flick nonsense. The violent narrative route taken to heal Cross of his psychological "damage" simply fills a quota of killing and murder and malaise as entertainment. Hollywood doesn't trust being intense without being gruesome; the past decade of Silence of the Lambs clones has made us expect mayhem and gore when watching a "thriller." But without the astonishment or psychological insight that used to characterize film noir, it's just run-of-the-mill, time-killing Grand Guignol.

Spider's plot is a ruse for our culture's mess. Audiences seek to be shocked by their fears (because they're essentially past being shocked). And noir thrillers used to help us understand our insecurities and instability, but now those are just opportunities for decadent delectation. That's what you get in the machinations of Memento (an enervating, overlong rip of both Chris Marker's La Jetee and Harold Pinter's Betrayal that gussies up our move away from personal responsibility); and it explains the unfathomable critical acclaim for the cross-section of Mexico's violence and greed in Amores Perros' three implausible, interlocking stories (basically, Third World decadence for NAFTA snobs). It's Morgan Freeman's way of carrying his artistic responsibility that makes even the wack Along Came a Spider preferable to both those movies. "You do what you are," Cross tells Jezzie. And Freeman adds profundity when he explains, "You're born with a gift or you get good at something along the way. You don't betray your gift. If you do, you betray yourself." That's not standard cop talk, it's an artist's credo.

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