Beginning in 1992 after L.A.'s Rodney King riots a reformed ex-convict named Tommy Johnson needing a job grabbed a boom box some face paint and a clown suit. Bizarre yes. But he started a successful kids' party business dancing in the riot-ravaged areas. Before he knew it Johnson--who named himself Tommy the Clown--started a ghetto-wide trend of "clowning " and later "krumping " both characterized by quick sudden dance moves. Rize is about more than just Tommy the Clown of course. It's about race and oppression in America and the therapeutic effect of dance throughout the centuries. The film attempts to channel the human spirit through physical expression as the real-life faces give Rize extra needed impact to the oppressive story--one unfortunately that is all too familiar.
The real-life street dancers infuse the documentary. They are essentially characters with alter-ego names like Dragon Miss Prissy and El Nino. Decorated in face paint they are average real South L.A. "hood" residents with average jobs. Larry for example still works at Abercrombie & Fitch. But boy they can dance. LaChapelle's visual storytelling elevates them to iconic actor-like character status. More gravely however the dancers' belonging to clown or krump crews often substitute gang affiliation in the bombed-out neighborhoods. Rize works because of its "acting " the vibrancy and timelessness of its characters' spirits.
Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson's good friend David LaChapelle directs his first feature after he released a similar short film Krumped last year. His celebrity portraits have graced Vanity Fair and Interview magazines since the '80s. We last saw LaChapelle on the police blotter in January getting arrested for disorderly conduct. Utah police allege LaChapelle who was partying with Hilton and Anderson at Sundance where Rize premiered became physically and verbally abusive when separated from the starlets. The case isn't settled yet. But in light of these charges it could be LaChapelle's ability to bull his way through filming glossing over themes quickly that gives Rize its broad-brush impact. LaChapelle offers a different documentary in the post-Michael Moore era--one without a political point of view or wry scrutiny of shady characters. Instead LaChapelle (who apprenticed under Andy Warhol) sees himself more as an artist. With Rize he's molded an artistic topical statement a timely bull's eye of hip-hop and Blue State progressivism. The filmmaker trains the audience's eye quickly to become hypnotized in the dancers' bodies and to seek higher meaning.
As dean of a small college Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) has made a nice life for himself--until a false accusation of racism ruins his career and he loses his wife to a brain aneurysm. Suddenly Coleman has nothing--until he embarks on an intensely sexual relationship with Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman) a local woman with an abusive ex-husband Lester (Ed Harris) who won't leave her alone. The intensity of Coleman's love for Faunia leads him to reveal his long-held secret: He has been passing himself off as Jewish and white for most of his adult life but in reality he is a light-skinned African-American. From there a series of flashbacks to the 1940s introduce us to a younger love-struck Coleman (Wentworth Miller) and reveal the events that led him to his fateful decision. Somehow Coleman's deep dark secret isn't as shocking as it's probably meant to be but the relationship between Faunia and Coleman is--especially when it slips into the danger zone with Lester breathing down their necks.
Wentworth Miller who makes his film debut as the younger Coleman does an amazing job with his role establishing Coleman's quiet yet fierce determination to live a life free of intolerance. And as ever Hopkins is the consummate professional with flashes of intense passion and brilliance in his steely eyes. One does have to get over the fact that a Welsh actor has been cast as an elderly light-skinned African-American but if Hopkins can give nuance to a declaration of how Viagra has changed his character's life (ick) he can pull off the race thing easily enough. Kidman as the dour Faunia also has some stunning moments easily sinking to the depressive depths required of her character--not surprising considering she won the Oscar doing the same thing in The Hours. What really makes you clench your teeth though is when the two of them get together on screen--in the biblical sense. These Oscar winners are so sorely miscast as tortured lovebirds that their sexual moments make you squirm in your seat. It's not the age difference; there's simply no spark between them.
"We leave a stain a trail and imprint " Philip Roth writes in his novel the third in a trilogy on postwar America. "It's the only way to be here." The author goes on to explore myriad themes around this main premise including how we leave our marks how our decisions have consequences and how people can find one another under the direst circumstances. Unfortunately these big ideas get lost in translation on the big screen and the film suffers from adaptation blues. Director Robert Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer gives Roth's ideas voice only through Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) the reclusive author Coleman asks to write his life story and even that artistic character talks more about how sex is clouding Coleman's judgment than about his own life or ideology. Ultimately Meyer focuses his script too heavily on the guarded Coleman leaving the other characters too little developed. Why has Nathan secluded himself away from the world? What haunts him? Sinise does what he can with the character but there's too little background. The same goes for Faunia. Although she describes in one monologue after another the horrors of her life--she was abused as a girl and lost her two children in a terrible fire--Faunia's hardships seem distant and it's hard to connect with her character. Only the wounded Lester a Vietnam veteran seems made of real emotions and desires--he's filled with hatred and passion--and if he makes only a brief appearance in the film he certainly leaves a mark.