After the Pearl Harbor review – which I should’ve reposted for Bayhem, but ah well – some of you requested I review a “good” Cuba Gooding Jr. movie. Well, the jokes on you there, since Pearl Harbor wasn’t a Cuba Gooding Jr. movie at all. Not even a bad one. But how did the Academy Award Winning star of Jerry Maguire wind up slumming in a Michael Bay movie, anyway? What sad, twisted tale of modern Hollywood kept this rich young black man down?
Well, to answer that, we have to look at A Murder of Crows. Released three days after Armageddon, in July, 1998, it promptly sank into obscurity, one of the first films to discover Michael Bay’s shadow is actually the manifestation of a trans-dimensional void, a howling vacuum of Suck from which no good can possibly escape. There’s the film’s main problem, right there. Everyone who might’ve been interested in seeing Cuba’s post-Oscar follow-up held onto their money and went to see Lethal Weapon 4 (released the following weekend) instead. We were all suckered, myself very much included, and Cuba (for all his money, talent and money) got screwed right along with the rest of us. Was a time when Jet Li’s presence would get me anywhere, I confess.
But enough about that. Yes, A Murder of Crows. Academy Award Winner Cuba Gooding Jr. stars as Lawson Russell, a lawyer struggling with his conscience…so much so that it’s landed him in jail in the very first scene, to the delight of his cell block-mates. As soon as he’s locked down, Cuba’s “Helpful” Narration begins and his voice-overs become our constant friend for the next hour and forty-seven minutes. Those of you who swoon for Cuba’s honey tones, take heed: this is your movie.
The rest of us spend the first thirty-odd minutes wondering if we are, indeed, doing the time-warp again. After all, just what do we have here? A non-traditional narrative structure where a protagonist tell us all about his drawn-out fall from grace? A world full of corruption where morality is a gray haze and everyone acts like a self-interested prick with no conscience? A convoluted murder mystery that makes a lot more sense the less you think about it?
My God, it’s an honest noir film. Made in 1998 and staring a black man! Holy shit, this is like finding a female gamer in the early 1980s. Or a twenty-first century superhero film from 20th Century Fox that doesn’t suck. This should be great, right?
Well, yes and no. Lawson is a Miami criminal defense attorney who, one day, decides to go apeshit on his obviously guilty client (Eric Stoltz) in open court. The corrupt judge (Carmen Argenziano) running the case refused to let Lawson recuse himself because the Judge is old golfing buddies with Lawson’s client’s dad (who also happens to be the state AG). So Lawson turns the full power of his Cuba Gooding Jr. Bug Eyes on the guilty man, wilting Eric Stoltz faster than a blast of weed killer to the face.
Disbarred for the very Existential reason that his client picked the wrong time to smile at him, Lawson retires to Key West and tries to become a writer. By which I mean he sits around all day getting drunk off his ass until someone comes along in need of a fishing boat and her captain. In this capacity, Lawson meets an old man named Christopher Marlowe (Mark Pellegrino), because “Pseudonym P. Nomdeguerre” would’ve been a little too obvious, even for this film. The two get to drinking and it turns out Marlowe’s also written a book: a thriller called A Murder of Crows. It’s so damn good, in fact, that Lawson stays up all night finishing the manuscript. Good thing, too, for he finds Marlowe dead of a heart attack the very next day.
With no family waiting to claim Marlowe’s things, Lawson slaps his name on A Murder of Crows and becomes a best selling author overnight. No, really. It happens in the space of a jump-cut. One minute, Lawson’s your everyday, Jimmy Buffet protagonist…right down to the ill-fitting, beach bum shorts and the constant drinking. The next, he’s hobnobbing at publishing company parties and screwing his publisher, Janine DeVrie (Ashley “I faced down Pinhead three times!” Laurence), inside her palatial mansion. Because publishers always take the first opportunity to get down with their clients. Oh, and they pick new books with their genitals. Thanks, film, for letting us writers know what we’d be getting ourselves into. And now that DeVrie’s introduced Lawson to her box, how long will it take her to introduce him to Lemarchand’s?
No one rides the wave forever (even if that wave’s your boss). Soon, the police are at Lawson’s door, led by Detective Clifford Dubose (Tom “I was in The Big Chill” Berenger). See, A Murder of Crows – the book – is a murder mystery thriller about a psycho who kills lawyers. Because fuck them, right? All they do is let guilty men go free. They’re the guilty ones, and should obviously all pay for…other people’s crimes…Because that makes so much sense. Over the course of the book, five murders are described in gruesome and gory detail, each one so meticulously planned, they all wind up looking like accidents or robberies.
Problem is, five lawyers actually have turned up dead, exactly as “Lawson” describes in “his” book. This is way too much of a coincidence for Detective Duboise, since details were obviously held back from the press. So, like any good noir protagonist, Lawson goes on the lamb, seeking to prove his innocence. Sure, he’s a plagiarist, but he’s not a murderer or anything. Whoever originally wrote A Murder of Crows probably is, and odds are they’re having a gay old time watching Lawson squirm in the needlessly convoluted trap they set for him. Will Our Hero find the Real Killer and clear his Good Name before the credits role?
A Murder of Crows – the film – comes to us from Rowdy “Not Roddy” Herrington, writer/director of 1988’s Jack’s Back (which at least had the good sense to star James “Dr. Daniel Jackson” Spader as the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper) and 1993’s Striking Distance (“They shouldn’t have put him on the water, if they didn’t want him to make waves.”) I don’t know how he spent five years between Striking Distance and this, but if I had to guess, I’d say Herrrington filled that time trying desperately to get this movie made.
Gooding obviously believed in it, and just as obviously used his post-Jerry Maguire pull to rescue A Murder of Crows from Development Hell. That’s one of many, many reasons God gave us Producer credits. As a Producer, Cuba’s got the goods. But he’s pretty much wasted as a performer with nothing to do but run around alienating himself from the audience.
This could just flow from the fact I’ve watched way too many movies, but I figured out the “twist” in Murder of Crows by the forty-five minute mark. This left me forty more minutes to shout at the television, “It was that guy, you friggin’ idiot! Ain’t you never watched a noir film in your whole damn life?” Probably not, but sweet Jeeze-us, you’d have to be dense not to smell this set-up coming, like an evil fright train full of cow shit from Nebraska’s finer factory farms.
Only the Magic of Montage, deployed early on, prevents Lawson from unraveling The Killer’s meticulous scheme. This temporal truncation allows Lawson to go from an unpublished nobody in Rat’s Ass, Key West, to a chart-topping, bestselling author…in all of ten seconds. With no publicity tour, no face time on TV, no cameos from Charlie Rose, no meetings with Hollywood bigwigs, and all of one book signing scene (that has to pull double duty by setting-up Our Hero’s inevitable Fall). Any struggling authors out there looking for something to bitterly laugh at? Your ship has arrived, right here.
Behind its Wronged Man plot, the film’s a categorical indictment of the late-20th century publishing and criminal “justice” industries. And, since it’s a noir, everybody’s an ass who sells Lawson down the river as soon as Tom Berenger tells them to. This leaves us alone with Lawson, his interminable monologues and the retro air they lay over the proceedings. This lets the movie feel like a Rip Van Winkle that’s been hitting its Snooze button since the late-40s, finally wrestling itself out of bed just in time to discover the world’s pretty much moved on from its narrative form. Didn’t even really miss it all that much.
Not that Murder‘s bad. Or even Bad. It’s a perfectly functional film. But that’s all. There’s a reason protagonists stopped voicing-over their films and it’s got nothing to do with Harrison Ford’s stellar performance in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner. Film’s a visual medium, and a better filmmaker might’ve found a way to sneak Lawson’s backstory (to say nothing of his supporting cast’s, none of whom get much of anything to do) into his main story visually.
But that’s the great thing about voice-overs: no need to bother with all that when you can get your actor in a sound-booth and have them read out the exposition. If they read the whole thing as one monotonous info dump, that’s okay, too. Through the Magic of Editing, you can splice it over half a dozen places in the film to keep the audience from falling asleep.
Since this thing’s supposedly a mystery, there are more than enough “quiet” moments to spare. After all, Our Hero’s got to look for clues, right? And we can’t just show him doing that: he has to yak about it. To the audience. And about himself. His backstory. His lawyer training. His dead father’s eternal words of wisdom. Something. It’s like Harrington feared everyone would sink into his narrative’s labyrinthine twists and turns unless Cuba constantly threw us verbal life-lines.
I’m on the fence about whether this VO appeared in his original script or whether some suit ordered it tacked on after a bad test screening (like the film’s ending). It’s happened before…it will happen again…but Lawson’s voice-overs bulge with what, in a first-person novel, I’d count as good, solid character development. You’d see this everywhere back in the days when novelists still wrote films. These days, it’s the kind of stuff a writer/director puts into his Hero’s mouth in order to get it out of the way. Have to slot a sex scene in here, after all. Especially since Cuba agreed to moon Herrington’s camera for us.
As a director, Herrington makes a great writer. His camera’s even more in love with Cuba than your mom (or mine) and, really, why wouldn’t it be? It knows who buttered the toast around here. But casting such a recognizable star in such a bland, Everyman role only makes things harder on A Murder of Crows. Lawson’s supposed to be a Kafka protagonist, ensnared by the unfeeling forces of a decaying society that either hates him and everything he represents…or just can’t be bothered to give a shit. Kinda hard to project that image when you’re Cuba Gooding Jr., who was, at that time (as I’m sure you’ll recall if you were at all conscious in the late-90s) the culture industry’s latest slab of beefcake.
It’s evident the film knows this as well as we do. Probably better, since Lawson’s inherent Cuba-ness comes in handy several times during his investigation. My favorite bit comes when Lawson – on the lamb and now more famous as a serial killer than he ever was as a lawyer or an author – has to weasel some information out of a public office. In broad daylight. Does he even bother to disguise himself? No. He walks in and lets his well-cut suit, winning simile, and rakish mustache do the talking, even as he talks to us through voice-over, obscuring any dialogue in the scene. Because none of it’s important. What’s important is, the secretary Lawson speaks to has her head so far up her ass she not only fails to recognize him, she gives him everything he asks for. Even if she caught the news (“Local Author, Madman/Maniac – Every Word of His Book is True!”), Lawson’s too much of a dream boat to arouse her suspicions. Or the suspicions of her not-at-all-ambiguously gay supervisor. As Lawson departs (info in hand – he might as well be whistling) Miss Dumbass and her supervisor both take a moment to watch him go. And sigh wistfully. In unison.
Yes, movie, thank you. I already know Cuba Gooding Jr. is (or was at the time) the new, unattainable standard of masculine attractiveness. I should run right out and bankrupt and/or torture myself trying to meet that standard…or surpass it, if I can. As with most late-90s films, there’s plenty of product placement around to let me know which companies will support my attempt to be a real life Rod Tidwell. I kept expecting some announcer to break in. “A Murder of Crows is brought to you by Compaq, Marlboro, and however many liquor companies we can squeeze for some quick cash.”
Some of it’s hilarious because no one would dare get away with it today. Like this useless shot of Detective Duboise throwing his pack of smokes down on a table just so they land face up in the center of the frame. The camera holds on those coffin nails for far too long to please modern Health Nazis. It can’t just be coincidence, or the existing genre conventions that (in true noir fashion) keep everyone drinking and smoking as much as the pace allows.
And it is a quick movie. In fact, it’s what I consider a “popcorn” film: fun enough while it’s on, the least bit of thought brings its house crashing right the fuck down, but at least it avoided actively pissing me off. That’s more than most summer movies can manage. Its best scenes come when Berenger and Gooding play Les Miserables off each other, but these are necessarily few and far between.
“Popcorn movie’s” grown to mean something completely different from what I (or even the so-called “normal” people) mean when we use that term…something like, say, Armageddon…so I have to call A Murder of Crows “popcorn noir” and recommend it with the aforementioned, 2500 words of reservation. If all you ask from a film is that it show you the Cuba then…well, you’ve found your motherfucker; your ambassador of Kwan. Me, I’ll stick with Jack’s Back, thank you. At least that had James Spader in it. And Robert Picardo. Who played a doctor, now that I think back…how’s that for strange coincidence?