Both annoying and vibrant, casually plotted and deeply personal, Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn” ends up being as compelling as it is messy. Fictionalized look at the filmmaker’s family life during the early 1970s is loud, grating, disorganized and off-putting for more than half its running time, but eventually jells into an exceedingly vivid portrait of a specific household, as well as of a time and place that looks idyllic compared with the urban situation 20 years hence. Crossover appeal of this music-laden comedy-drama is limited, but core audience that has supported Lee’s studio features will probably turn out for this, the least ostensibly “controversial” of his efforts to date, resulting in OK early summer B.O.
After the far-reaching and, in many ways, over-reaching ambition and contentious politics of “Malcolm X,” it’s understandable that Lee would want to retrench in the familiar Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up and deal with matters close to home. Written with his brother and sister, it’s an account of family life loaded with anecdote and bereft of sharp focus until well into the second hour. But the specificity of memory evoked and the feeling of loss ultimately generated make it not all that far-fetched to consider “Crooklyn” Spike Lee’s “Fanny and Alexander,” even if it’s far less mature and nuanced than Ingmar Bergman’s film.
The Carmichaels live in a spacious, eclectically furnished brownstone in Brooklyn. Woody, the patriarch (Delroy Lindo, memorable as West Indian Archie in “Malcolm X”), is a jazz musician at a career standstill during the heyday of rock and pop. His wife, Carolyn (Alfre Woodard), teaches school to pay the bills , and fights a losing battle trying to control her five children, who would rather eat junk food than black-eyed peas and turn on the TV whenever she’s not around to forbid it.
Family life consists of almost constant hollering and arguing, something that continues out on the street with the neighbors. The kids constantly dump garbage outside the basement apartment of weird neighbor Tony Eyes (David Patrick Kelly) , who deserves it because his countless dogs stink up the whole area; tenants are late with their payments; the electricity gets turned off; two guys (one played by Spike Lee) are constantly sniffing airplane glue out of paper bags, and the Carmichaels’ oldest kid and only girl, 10-year-old Troy (Zelda Harris), is caught shoplifting.
Just wanting to be left in peace so he can write his music, Woody doesn’t protest when a furious Carolyn kicks him out of the house, but he soon comes back, and the craziness returns as before.
Pic takes a turn, both in narrative and style, when, after an hour, the family packs up the Citroen convertible and heads south, where Troy will spend the summer with a middle-class uncle and aunt. Long section devoted to the girl’s unhappy stay there is shot so that the images appear squeezed (as if a widescreen film were to be shown in a normal aspect ratio). Device is clearly meant to emphasize Troy’s discomfort in alien surroundings but is constantly distracting; unprepared viewers will probably just assume something’s wrong with the projection.
At the same time, however, it’s here that the film begins to focus on one character. Troy’s growing perceptiveness and preoccupations take center stage from here on, even as another of the major characters suddenly becomes ill and dies. Latter events are admirably treated with restraint and an avoidance of the usual Hollywood heart-tugging, although the death creates a void that helps Lee treat the eternal “you can’t go home again” theme in his own way.
Although there’s quite a bit of Afro hairstyling going on here, Lee exploits the comic potential of early ’70s fashions much less than Matty Rich did in “The Inkwell.” Still, there are quite a few amusingly indelible sights and sounds: a family of black kids singing along with the Partridge Family on TV, Carolyn looking like an African princess while behaving like a drill sergeant, the neighbors’ volatility contrasted with the orderly city block and, in a visual strategy that does work, Troy dreaming she’s on a glue-induced high, lifted above the streets as she remains in close-up.
More than three dozen period tunes are slapped onto the action, skillfully at times, awkwardly and arbitrarily at others. Eerie final credits sport the striking juxtaposition of the title song, an intriguing rap number, over vintage clips from TV’s “Soul Train,” known for a very different sort of music.
Performances are mostly high voltage, led by Woodard as the mother understandably about to come apart at the seams. Lindo brings an appealing, gentle thoughtfulness to the father whose artistic purity verges on selfishness, and newcomer Harris grows into her role as Troy.
In the end, one is left with a strong sense of tumultuous daily life being lived by flawed but vibrant individuals, and with a sadness at the passing of a way of life that may have seemed pretty unruly at the time but now looks downright innocent.