Title: Talk to Me
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenwriters: Michael Genet, Rick Famuyiw
Starring: Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Bruce McFe
In a fit of admirable, almost infectious enthusiasm, Kasi Lemmons — the talented, inventive director of Eve’s Bayou and The Caveman’s Valentine — films and edits the entirety of Talk to Me like a montage. Montages (a word I use colloquially to refer to slick, themed compilations of images, usually set to music) are ordinarily used to alter the passage of time on screen — to speed it along, loop it, or elide it entirely. And so Talk to Me, which spans nearly two decades and purports to chronicle the meteoric rise and almost-fall of a cultural icon, inadvertently winds up a blur; not quite a highlight reel, but a portrait too glossy and stylized to resonate.
On one level, it’s simply too schematic, charting the opposing trajectories of Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene (Don Cheadle), who begins the film a flashy dynamo hungry for fame and fortune but starts to question it once it comes his way, and Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the self-made, upright radio producer who lets Petey’s (and correspondingly his) newfound popularity take him to a destructive la-la land. When the movie chose to signify this by having Hughes — for whom “clean-cut” had been a philosophy and way of life — suddenly show up with a mustache, I knew we were in trouble; the movie mistakes this design for insight, and even leaving aside plausibility, it’s simply not much fun to watch.
But this isn’t really the problem — all biopics wind up schematic, to a certain extent, since virtually all biopics strive to give the lives of their subjects a “point,” as if these people lived and died to teach us all one very valuable lesson. So too here. The rub lies not in Talk to Me‘s predictable artificiality, but in its curious weightlessness: the film is so breezy, so deeply rooted in palatable clichés (“Never underestimate me again,” warns Dewey after winning at pool — which is supposed to refute, apparently, Petey’s incessant and obnoxious accusations of Uncle-Tommery) that it’s over before it begins. Lemmons is clearly into Greene as a rowdy, blithe figure, but as a director she forgets what the movie’s screenplay makes crystal: Greene struck a chord because he was so much more than that.
The point where Talk to Me really works — the moment where it threatens to take off — is when Lemmons slows her breathless romp through Greene’s legacy and pauses to consider a moment; namely, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is also here that Lemmons’ newfound penchant for montage serves her best: cutting between historical footage, harrowing reenactments of the violent aftermath, and Cheadle’s pained, earnest visage — the flashy, wisecracking Petey Greene of moments ago having melted away — she manages to capture the essence of the time, the place, and the character. And when the slow burn of Terence Blanchard’s score was supplanted by James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” I dared to be reminded of Do the Right Thing.
But then Lemmons shouts “Olé!” and it’s off to the races again, as Greene and Hughes plow through nightclubs, television gabfests and the Tonight Show, with Hughes digging the spotlight and Greene starting to question his purpose and calling. The passage of time doesn’t register, and the would-be melancholy coda, which rests self-importantly on a billiards rematch, hits with a deafening thud. The movie is too easy and too slick to earn the catharsis it wants in its final minutes.
Don Cheadle will get a lot of attention for his eager, entertaining performance, and he will deserve it, though it’s Chiwetel Ejiofor who does the most to raise Talk to Me out of its self-dug hole. As charming and funny as he is casually intimidating, Ejiofor’s a superstar, and this may be the film where everyone notices. What I’m hoping flies under the radar, meanwhile, is the unexpected and disappointing transformation of Kasi Lemmons, whose previous pitch-black, haunted sensibility barely makes an appearance in her highest-profile film.