The hero of a popular radio program and movie serial of the 1930’s and 40’s was “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy,” whose very name evokes wholesome strength and fortitude. The hero of this provocative, ambitious, and uneven movie is an all-American man also named Jack Armstrong (newcomer Anthony Mackie). He is a Wharton MBA with a top job in a pharmaceutical company, dedicated, honest, capable, and looking forward to FDA approval of the company’s new product, an AIDS vaccine. But then everything goes wrong.
Jack’s friend and colleague commits suicide. The FDA turns down the vaccine. Employees are shredding documents and management decrees that no one can sell company stock. Jack knows something is terribly wrong. He makes a call to the Securities and Exchange Commission investigators from a phone booth, but the boss finds out, and he is fired.
The CEO (Woody Harrelson) says that it was Jack who was corrupt. Jack’s bank account is frozen. He is desperate.
So, against his better judgment, he accepts $10,000 to impregnate his ex-fiancee, Fatima (Kerry Washington), and her girlfriend.
Fatima is entrepreneurial and still has complicated feelings about Jack. She likes being involved with him and it seems to give her some pleasure to put him in a position that gives her some power over him and perhaps some vicarious sexual involvement as well. She begins to act as broker for his sperm, setting him up with lesbians who want to get pregnant. No turkey basters or test tubes; he delivers the old-fashioned way, energized by Viagra washed down with Red Bull.
Meanwhile (there are a lot of meanwhiles in this movie, because it goes off in a lot of different directions), Jack also has to cope with his father’s failing health and his parents’ failing marriage, and the mistreatment of Frank Wills, the security guard who discovered the Watergate burglers but died broke. And one of the lesbians turns out to be the daughter of a mafia don.
You just want to say, “Please, Spike, I promise you’ll make another movie! You don’t have to put every single idea you have into this one.” So many movies get released without any ideas or point of view whatsoever that it seems churlish to say this one is overstuffed, but that is how it feels. Its many directions are intended to enrich each other — yes, I get it, the mafia guy is better than the corporate crooks, and the sex-for-hire relationships are in some ways more successful than the attempted romantic relationships — but they ultimately diminish each other instead, making the film feel at the same time distracted and over the top. There are also elements that just feel pointless. Monica Belluci is not only too old to be the daughter of John Turturro, but she speaks with an Italian accent while he does not. Did they ever live in the same house? And the Frank Wills section just seems completely extraneous. Yes, it was terribly sad that his 15 minutes of fame left him worse off than he was before. But it is quite a stretch to say that he was brought down by The Man for blowing the whistle on what he just thought was a simple robbery and an even greater stretch to tie his fate to what happens to Jack. Furthermore, the portrayal of the lesbians in the movie shifts from empowerment to male heterosexual fantasy, especially in a series of scenes where Jack brings many of them to heights of sexual ecstasy and when they force him to stand naked in front of them and comment appreciatively on his body. Is this supposed to hark back to the slave auctions? Or is it just a high-class porn scenario?
It may be troubling and imperfect, but it is still a Spike Lee movie, which means that it is well worth watching and arguing over. Perhaps the issues he is trying to raise can only be addressed in a fractured style. But the individual shards of this film have more audacity and intelligence than most of what is out there and its failures are more interesting to ponder than most films’ successes.
Parents should know that this movie has extremely mature material with nudity, graphic scenes of childbirth, and many explicit sexual encounters, straight and gay. Characters drink, smoke, and use very strong language. A character commits suicide by jumping out of a window. He falls on another man and they are both killed. A theme of the movie relates to being paid for sex and the parallels to selling one’s soul.
Families who see this movie should talk about Angelo Bonasera’s comments on the way that a movie like The Godfather portrays and inspires real-life criminals and how real-life criminals inspire wanna-be “gangsta” rap stars. What decisions does Jack regret? How does he try to make good what he has done wrong? What does co-screenwriter/director Lee want to tell us with Jack’s family, especially with the relationship to his parents?
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy other Lee movies, especially Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, Do the Right Thing, and School Daze.