This is what makes Spike Lee's latest "joint" seem so specious. Around the central situation - a struggling actress working on a telephone sex line to make ends meet finds herself drawn a little too far into her work - he's created not a story but a compendium of half-realised plots, references to familiar stories, movie skits and star cameos (Madonna, looking decidedly butch as a porn tycoon; Naomi Campbell, showing she'd be better off sticking to writing novels). The obliteration of the line between reality and fantasy is the central theme throughout. Along the way, there are some good jokes and some stylish film-making; but there's little sense that the film is telling a story or making a point that you care about.
It's not a bad trick to base a film that is so emotionally uninvolving around a performance as charismatic and funny as Theresa Randle's, and Lee works hard to do it. Few of the characters have names, or at least names we can trust. Girl 6 is the label Randle is given when she starts in the telephone sex business, which callers can use to request her. Within the telephone fantasy world, each girl has to create a series of identities for herself - dominatrix, housewife, girl next door, and so on - which she flips between according to the caller's preference. Each identity involves a physical description (usually involving "big jugs") and a name; Girl 6's favourite identity is girl-next-door Lovely Brown. But at the end of the film, her ex-husband - a kleptomaniac, listed in the closing credits as "Shoplifter" - calls her Judy, and she tells him, "I love it when you call me that."
The film is full of alienation techniques, too - jumpy editing, constant switches between film and grainy video. These serve a narrative purpose: the world of phone sex is always bright, dazzlingly hygienic and crisply lit to show you how desirable this world is compared with the world outside (it's noticeable that once the girl has given up on her acting aspirations, after a series of humiliations in the opening scenes, the lighting is stepped up and the focus is pulled closer); but Lee is also emphasising the reality/ fantasy dichotomy. Almost all of Girl 6's callers are seen in video, as if they are the fantasies, their sordid world of threesomes, doggy-style sex and big jugs lacking reality next to the clarity of the office.
And of course, the callers are the fantasies: at first, Girl 6 says she's doing the job for the money, but it soon becomes clear that she's enjoying the job more than is healthy. After her very first call, when she's presented with a corsage by her supervisor as if she were going off to the high- school prom, she breathes dreamily to herself, "He came." Pretty soon, another girl is telling her not to get too involved; and her childish yet wise neighbour, Jimmy (Spike Lee, who seems to be losing the knack of casting himself in challenging, ambivalent roles), starts to worry about her. She ignores all the warnings: she falls for one of her callers, Bob Regular, and arranges to meet him when he visits New York - he never shows up. When she is told to take some time off to recharge her batteries, she gets her own phone-line and starts to take really perverted phone calls from home; swooning cameras and psychedelic background, set against Prince's score, show you how far she's been swallowed up by this dream world - it's all a bit like a Hollywood drug-trip.
In between the fantasies she's playing out with her callers, Girl 6 dreams about being a famous actress in a series of skits on great moments in black film and television - she's Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, or she's the daughter in a sitcom, or the heroine of a blaxploitation flick (none of them healthy role models). But reality keeps intruding: her ex-husband is trying to get back with her, and when she tries out her phone routine on him he takes it as a come-on; she becomes obsessed with an on-going news story about a little black girl who has fallen down an elevator shaft; and then one of her home-callers, whose fantasies are all about killing, turns out to know where she lives.
Or does he? This part is possibly true, as he's shot in Technicolor, not video; but by this time reality has become a little too blurred for you to be sure, or bothered. It's hard to feel any satisfaction, either, when Girl 6 finally cleans up her act and heads to Hollywood to be a real actress.
But Lee probably wants it that way. In the opening scenes, Randle has a nightmare audition with a film director (Quentin Tarantino, playing a self-obsessed jerk whose initials, in one of the film's best jokes, turn out to be QT) who wants her to take her top off; at the end of the film, the scene is repeated - but this time she has the confidence to say her piece and walk out of the door, head held high. The message seems to be that through fantasy she has created her own identity, learned to be her own person; but then, in a touch that would make Martin Amis flinch, she walks straight into a cinema showing Girl 6 - and it's just another little skit on the divide between reality and fiction. You're left with a sense that you've spent nearly two hours watching Lee sawing off the branch he was sitting on; and when he hits the ground he expects you to applaud. Perhaps the best tribute you could pay him is to pretend that you've been to see the film.
n On general release from tomorrow
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