Monday, January 07, 2008

 

It ain't easy being Greene

By Edward Copeland
Overlooked for the most part in year-end lists and awards, I caught up with Talk to Me on DVD and this fun biopic provides more evidence that not only are Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor two of our best actors, they also are among the most chameleon-like, giving distinct performances in nearly everything they do.


Directed by Kasi Lemmons, who made the great Eve's Bayou and the interminable Caveman's Valentine, Talk to Me tells the true story of Petey Greene (Cheadle), a would-be hustler of the 1960s who develops a following as a disc jockey while he's imprisoned and schemes his way to a job at Washington radio station WOL once he gets out.

At first, the execs at the station don't know what to make of Petey, including Dewey Hughes (Ejiofor), who first meets Petey while visiting his own incarcerated brother, and the station's owner (Martin Sheen), whose tolerance is tested by this hip, profane bundle of energy that shows up on his airwaves.

Soon, Greene has a true following and Hughes recognizes that he could be so much more, quitting his job to become Petey's manager and selling him as a TV personality and a stand-up comic. While this is a true story, I wasn't familiar with it and it doesn't play like your typical biopic: the screenplay by Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa is funny, lively and infectious.

Cheadle and Ejiofor are both great, with Cheadle giving one of his loosest, funkiest performances ever and Ejiofor creating another vivid character, one who really undergoes more transformation than Petey does.

Also lending able support is the great Taraji P. Henson, who was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Hustle & Flow, as Petey's longtime girlfriend Vernell.

The film's weakness comes in the last act, when the focus shifts almost entirely to Hughes instead of Petey. Another problem is that for a film that spans the years 1966 to 1983, there is scant evidence of aging among the characters (or even in the settings).

When Vernell arrives late in the film to tell Dewey that a lifetime of hard living has taken its toll on Petey, she doesn't look any older and when you see Petey again, he doesn't look any worse for the wear either.

While most of the film is sketched in a light tone, it also succeeds in some more dramatic moments, particularly after the assassination of Martin Luther King as Petey stays on the air while D.C. burns.

Still, reservations aside, Talk to Me is so enjoyable for most of its running time and the acting is so great, that it hardly matters.


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Comments:
One of the reason's I loved "Talk to Me" was that it didn't play out like a typical biopic. Instead of focusing on Petey's drug problems, they merely allude to them and focus on the relationships between Petey, Dewey and Vernell.
 
As I said under the La Vie En Rose piece, Don Cheadle is great here. He is overshadowed by Denzel's lackluster turn in American Gangster, which I'm sure will get into the Best Actor race. Cheadle is so loose and funny here that the movie takes a major hit when it stops being about him. This isn't to take away from Ejiofor's performance--his pool hall scene is superb--but the screenplay's construction doesn't prepare us for the abrupt switch.

Taraji P. Henson continues to amaze me. On the surface, her performance seems to be all "you go girl" sass, but she creates a fine character under all that noise. Someday she, like her H&F co-star Terrence Howard, will get her due.
 
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