Looking at even the trailer for Oren Moverman’s “Rampart,” it’s hard to believe there was a time when Woody Harrelson was not looked at as primarily a dramatic actor. Certainly, in the last ten or fifteen years he has cultivated an undeniable pedigree as an intense, thoughtful, and entertaining performer to watch. But coming off of TV’s “Cheers” in the late 1980s, Harrelson first ventured into films with a reputation for being a loveable dimwit, or at least an actor who could play one convincingly.
In 1992, when he began to migrate to leading roles in theatrical work, Harrelson made the shrewd decision to star opposite a similarly budding actor, Wesley Snipes, in the film “White Men Can’t Jump.” Its writer-director, Ron Shelton, was an established purveyor of sports-themed stories, particularly ones that danced on an edge between comedy and drama, and the project could theoretically showcase Harrelson’s acting chops without challenging audiences to look at him too much differently than they already knew him from his small-screen work. But was the film successful? And more immediately, does it still work today in all of the ways in which it intended? That’s what this week’s “Shelf Life” set out to determine.
Released on March 27, 1992, “White Men Can’t Jump” was a modest but significant success at the box office, earning some $90 million in receipts and firmly establishing Harrelson as a star – on the rise, anyway. The film received only minor nods from critics groups, including a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Rosie Perez as Harrelson’s girlfriend Gloria, and currently maintains a 77 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The success of the film not only led to bigger roles for Harrelson in films like “Indecent Proposal” and “Natural Born Killers,” but an eventual reunion with Snipes in the 1996 film “Money Train,” which was a critical and commercial failure.
What Still Works
The first 45 minutes of “White Men Can’t Jump” aren’t just terrific, they are the main if not only reason that the film ever earned affection from viewers. Harrelson and Snipes’ constant one-upmanship, as much on a personal level as a racial one, creates an invigorating, imminently watchable chemistry that propels the film forward towards deeper waters. Both Harrelson and Snipes do phenomenal work, being both convincing athletes and charismatic con men, and the rapport they create as actors (much less between their characters) forms one of the more remarkable on screen pairs possibly of all time.
Meanwhile, Rosie Perez manages to channel her force-of-nature personality into a character who’s not just palpably intelligent, but complex, interesting and sympathetic. While managing to be phenomenally sexy (some might say despite her Chihuahua ‘Rican accent), she infuses Gloria with believable substance, especially when she has to sort of acknowledge or observe the film’s underlying themes, and yet creates a credibly unpredictable companion for Harrelson’s bullheaded Billy. As she issues perhaps conventionally female-irrational demands of him (“I don’t want you to get me a glass of water, I want you to sympathize with my thirst”), she somehow avoids being a purely cliched, crazy-woman character, and makes us understand why the two of them are together – and why it’s so hard for her to give him up.
In terms of the basketball – both as a driving force and its cinematic depiction – Shelton gives the sport an immediacy and an energy that sustains the audience even after they’ve seen several games between the two protagonists, or between the two protagonists and their various opponents. Shelton makes it look fun, easy and most of all convincing, showing us not only that Harrelson and Snipes are playing ball themselves, but they’re actually good at it.
What Doesn’t Work
Almost everything after the first 45 minutes of the story feels like a slow and steady decline into redundancy and abrasiveness. Where the friction between Billy and Sidney kept the film alive and fresh in the opening scenes, it later feels too relentless and too acrimonious to be enjoyable, especially when, say, Billy continues to shit-talk their opponents before, during and after the big competition that leads into the final act. While that may have been the film’s point – there is a time when these “movie characters” become real people – it undermines our sympathies for both characters, especially Billy, which is later augmented not just by one bad choice, but a series of remarkably awful decisions. I think there’s three separate scenes in which Billy has to tell Gloria that he lost all of their money, or his money, or some nest egg of theirs that both had worked together to build, and at a certain point, the viewer tunes out on the possibility of him being redeemed.
Additionally, though there’s something admirable about Shelton’s determination to give both characters equal weight, or at least their own complete story, that choice does the film’s narrative momentum a great disservice: by the time the two of them reunite to play in the street ball tournament, the film feels like it should be winding down, and wrapping up some of the story strands it introduces. But there’s still Billy’s bad decision, his re-connection with Gloria via her appearance on “Jeopardy” (which inexplicably he never explains was his doing), the showdown with the “legends,” and the coda afterward. One might be able to chalk this up to the need to bring to fruition the film’s title – perhaps a studio exec was like, “why doesn’t this white man get to jump eventually?” – but this story doesn’t demand two hours to be told, and at that length there needs to be more. Especially since Shelton overplays his hand by having Gloria more or less explicitly state the subtext of the film, venture into a semiserious, self-reflective spiral for Billy, and then try to pull back out to re-engage in the more lighthearted tone of the first segment of the film.
“White Men Can’t Jump” was always a film I had problems with upon its original release, but a recent viewing only confirmed the legitimacy of those criticisms: Shelton engages in a sense of poetry with the subtext that its set-up cannot sustain, and when he tries to apply it to the actual story in a more serious way, it feels incongruous with what happens before, and then after when he’s trying to crowd-please with a charming finale. Overall, the film is flawed at best, featuring three great performances and even greater chemistry that is utilized (for a while) to incredible effect, but in a narrative that weighs too much by half and story that’s too long and convoluted to support it.
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