This highly original existential black comedy (1991) charts the real-life exploits of William Douglas Street (played with a great deal of charisma and wit by writer-director Wendell B. Harris Jr.), a Detroit con man. From the late 70s to the mid-80s Street carried off a number of impersonations, presenting himself as a Time magazine reporter, a surgery intern (he performed 23 successful operations), a Caribbean exchange student at Yale, and a civil rights attorney; various other scams landed him in prison. Without wasting any time on facile psychologizing, Harris uses his subject as a means to explore the paradoxes of acting (some of Street’s real-life victims play themselves) and the invisibility of blacks in the U.S.; Street is also the source of some very funny comedy. In all, this disturbing yet compelling rogue’s progress calls to mind an 18th-century picaresque novel. Harris’s eclectic directorial style doesn’t always sustain itself, but it’s brimming with inventive ideas. R, 94 min. (JR) Read more
From the Chicago Reader (May 3, 1991). — J.R.
A RAGE IN HARLEM
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Bill Duke
Written by John Toles-Bey and Bobby Crawford
With Forest Whitaker, Gregory Hines, Robin Givens, Zakes Mokae, Danny Glover, Badja Djola, and John Toles-Bey.
THE OBJECT OF BEAUTY
** (Worth seeing)
Directed and written by Michael Lindsay-Hogg
With John Malkovich, Andie MacDowell, Joss Ackland, Rudi Davies, Peter Riegert, Lolita Davidovich, and Ricci Harnett.
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by John Landis
Written by Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland
With Sylvester Stallone, Peter Riegert, Joey Travolta, Elizabeth Barondes, Tim Curry, Vincent Spano, Ornella Muti, and Joycelyn O’Brien.
With at least three new comedies around at the moment — four counting the semicomic Impromptu — it seems like the silly season is fully upon us. Although the three urban comedies under review are set in different decades (Oscar in the 30s, A Rage in Harlem in the 50s, The Object of Beauty in the present), they all appear at first to be equally concerned with money — the thing that keeps the wheels of their complicated farcical plots turning. All have something to do with sex and romance as well, but it’s clearly money that holds the sex and romance in place. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (September 22, 1989). — J.R.
** (Worth seeing)
Directed by Lewis Gilbert
Written by Willy Russell
With Pauline Collins, Tom Conti, Julia McKenzie, Alison Steadman, Bernard Hill, Joanna Lumley, and Tracie Bennett.
I had my first experience of English theater in London’s West End around the mid-1960s–a program of three one-act plays written by and starring Noel Coward. (I no longer remember the show’s title, but I believe it was Coward’s last theater piece.) [2011 postscript: this was Suite in Three Keys, in 1966.] The plots of all three plays were fairly slender, and the mise en scene, as I recall, was strictly conventional. What was remarkable about the overall performance, and quite characteristic (as I soon discovered) of the English theater in general, was the extraordinary, almost conspiratorial rapport between Coward the actor and his audience — a very cozy kind of intimacy that reflected the appeal of the three characters Coward was playing and very little else. The stories and direction were nothing more than the recipes and the cooking necessary to serve these characters up to the public for its delectation, and once combined the ingredients retained no attributes of their own; all that remained was Coward’s plump, juicy, quirky personality. Read more