Monday, September 10, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Street Smart" (1987)

Morgan Freeman has had one of the greatest film careers in cinematic history, in my opinion, and perhaps the most amazing thing about it is that it didn't take off until he was 50 years old.

He had supporting parts in mainstream movies, including 1984's "Teachers" with Nick Nolte, but in 1987 most people knew Freeman as a cast member on "The Electric Company" during the 1970s, playing a variety of urban caricatures helping to educate little kiddies: "Top to bottom, left to right, reading stuff is outta sight!"

"Street Smart" did not make any lasting impression on audiences, other than Freeman's amazing turn as Leo Smalls Jr., aka Fast Black, a chillingly unscrupulous pimp and killer. It earned him the first of five Oscar nominations -- he eventually won for "Million Dollar Baby" -- and he soon found himself cast in leading roles in "Driving Miss Daisy," "Lean on Me," "Se7en" and "The Shawshank Redemption," not to mention supporting turns in high-profile films like "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," "Glory," "Unforgiven" and more.

Such was the pinnacle of Freeman's reputation by the 1990s that when he was cast as the U.S. President in "Deep Impact," it caused little stir to see a black man in the role -- a full decade before a real-life African-American would be elected to that post. By the 2000s, when producers needed somebody to convincingly play God Himself in "Bruce Almighty" and its sequel, I doubt if any name other than Freeman's even came up.

"Street Smart" is in some ways analogous to "Girl, Interrupted." It was the pet project of an established star who wanted to use the material to showcase their more serious side, but another largely unknown performer stole the show and would eventually leave them in the dust. Just as Anjelina Jolie's career has soared while Winona Ryder's crashed, Freeman's took flight right as Christopher Reeve, having recently hung up Superman's cape, saw his falling to earth.

(Indeed, according to Reeve's own account, the studio only agreed to finance the low-budget "Street Smart" in exchange for him signing on to do the fourth, unmemorable Man of Steel flick.)

Freeman is terrific as Fast Black, charismatic and chatty one minute and threatening to kill or maim the next. He wears a coiffed Afro, flashy clothes, a gold tooth and has long, sharp white fingernails that give him an almost supernatural look -- abetted by what appears to be eyeliner, which makes Freeman's steely gaze electrifying.

He's so damn good, in fact, that whenever he's not on camera, the movie drags and heaves, like a glacier crumbling under its own inertia. Based on his sixth-place billing in the credits, however -- after such luminaries as Jay Patterson and Andre Gregory -- it's clear the studio wasn't expecting him to be such a mesmerizing presence.

Reeve plays Jonathan Fisher, a nondescript name for a nondescript man. A well-heeled magazine writer for the fictional New York Journal, he's desperate to get ahead. The patrician editor (Gregory) doesn't like any of his story ideas, so he pitches him a left-field notion about an insider's view of a New York pimp, which grabs more attention.

Unfortunately, the preppy-dressing Jonathan doesn't have much luck getting anyone to talk to him from the Big Apple's seedier side. In desperation, he makes up a character and a story to go with it. The editor runs the piece on the cover, it makes a big splash, Jonathan becomes a celebrity and even gets a side gig doing an investigative TV segment, dubbed "Street Smart."

Things get complicated when a D.A. prosecuting Fast Black for murder becomes convinced that Jonathan based the story on him, and demands his notes as evidence. Fast Black's lawyer cleverly embraces the ploy, realizing the case will turn into a First Amendment crisis and remove the focus from his client. The pimp and the writer even buddy up to one another -- which lends Jonathan a way to satisfy his boss' demand to meet the subject of the story at a fancy cocktail party.

Tagging along, and eventually getting into the middle, is Punchy (Kathy Baker), one of Fast Black's top call girls, who connects the two of them together. Other than Freeman, Baker is the only other actor with any real presence in the film, a mix of small-town innocence and streetwise allure.

My biggest problem with the movie is that director Jerry Schatzberg and screenwriter David Freeman don't delve very deeply into Jonathan's anguish and guilt. I know I'm biased given my own journalistic background, but there should be more focus on the way his lies keep piling up atop each other. As with Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Jonah Lehrer, Janet Cooke and other fabulists, their dreamed-up stories are exposed in the end.

For Jonathan, it should feel like the walls are closing in on him, as he dreads the day his fabrications are revealed and his career is ended. Instead, the story focuses on the threat of Fast Black, who wants him to create fake notes that exonerate him. Their budding friendship soon turns into one of victim and victimizer -- a challenge to stage convincingly, given Reeve's imposing 6-foot-4 build.

Jonathan has one brief conversation with his girlfriend (Mimi Rogers) in which he discusses the ramifications of concocting a story and then lying repeatedly about it.
"How do you feel about this?" she asks.
"I'm amazed that I got away with it. And I'm ashamed that I got away with it. What the hell, back in business, right?"
Not exactly Dostoevsky-esque torments of the soul, that.

In fact, the story ends with Fast Black dead, the lieutenant who had been fooled by Jonathan into killing him in jail, Punchy murdered and mutilated -- and Jonathan still on the streets, doing his TV reports.

We can thank "Street Smart" for helping put Morgan Freeman on the big stage. Considered in of itself, though, it's a film of little consequence.

2 stars out of four

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