Monday, February 3, 2014

WHITE MEN CAN'T JUMP: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1992) Fox Home Video

A lot of white on black/black on white idiotic humor went into Ron Shelton’s White Men Can’t Jump (1992); an occasionally passable - if undemanding, yet bawdy - extended diatribe, railing against political correctness with every bounce and dribble on the basketball court. This isn’t a great movie or even a good comedy, but a knee-jerk reaction to institutionalized anti-racist rhetoric, using comedy to make its greasy little social commentary stick. That said, White Men Can’t Jump is an overall amusing affair – occasionally clear-eyed in its distillation of an unlikely friendship between self-glorifying homeboy, Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes) and battered screw-up, Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson); a ringer who takes advantage of his pale skin to trump the unsuspecting non-Caucasians out of their cold hard cash with bets made against him. At the crux of Shelton’s movie there is a flawed understanding that basketball is a black man’s game. Oh, really?!?...invented, as it was by white boy, James Naismith, and, in Canada in 1891, no less. But why let a little history get in the way of a complete farce?
Let’s get something straight. Playing the race card can get ugly no matter whose side is stacking the deck. If anything, White Men Can’t Jump applies its cracker vs. homies cynicism with a broad, liberal, though well-balanced brush. Both sides get in their digs. But Casper is clearly the loser in this show; Billy’s inability to even conceive of a time when he won’t be as fresh on the courts doing him out of a promising future with Hispanic gal-pal, Gloria Clemente (Rosie Perez) who’s no dummy when it comes to keeping her eye on the prize. If anything, the women in White Men Can’t Jump, represented by the aforementioned Perez and Tyra Ferrell (as Rhonda Deane), are the brains of this operation; Gloria with her dreams of winning big money as a returning champion on the popular game show, Jeopardy!, and Rhonda, laying down her own guidelines for Sidney’s aspirations. “All I care about is getting out of the Vista View apartments,” Rhoda tells her man, “…because there ain't no ‘vista’, there ain't no ‘view’, and there certainly ain't no vista of no view.”
These are smart women who just happen to be touched in the head when it comes to being attracted to boys playing at being real men. In this regard, Sidney and Billy are evenly matched. Neither really wants to grow up while both harbor a genuine and mounting angst that their time as stunted adolescents is growing short. You can’t stave off middle age forever. Either grow up, shape up or ship out. Sidney seems to grasp this remedial concept more easily than Billy, who repeatedly blows his sure thing on a whim driven by ego and his desire to prove that white men really can jump. Too bad, Larry Bird he ain’t.  White Men Can’t Jump would be a fairly decent buddy/buddy flick if it weren’t for its endless litany of court side trash-talk. A brief compendium will suffice.
“Shut your anorexic malnutrition tapeworm-having overdose on Dick Gregory Bahamian diet-drinking ass up. Can anybody step in for this guy? Anybody…for Mr. mother-f_ _king March of Dimes? You still throwing up bricks? What is this, a Mason’s convention? Wha... clank, clank! I need, like, a welding torch to play in this league! I got an idea... let's just stop right now and gather up all these bricks and build a shelter for the homeless so maybe your mother will have a place to live.”
You get the picture. The humor infrequently rises above crude ‘yo mama’ jokes and the sort of navel-gazing smack about human genitalia, bodily functions, and other bits of pubescent chest-thumping male machismo run amuck. Shelton’s screenplay makes feeble attempts to philosophize/legitimize the art of the hustle. But the chronically degenerate mentality it infuses into these boys of summer really runs counterintuitive to any deeper understanding or intelligence for that matter. Billy wisely deduces that Sidney would rather miss a shot than look bad. This realization stings and, after being hustled out of his Sizzler’s money by Billy, Sidney decides to set Billy up for a rematch; only this time pretending to hire him for a con on some other players, then throwing the game and splitting the proceeds after Billy has departed the court in shame and humiliation. Sidney feels bad – just not enough to return the money he’s scammed from Billy. Gloria attempts to explain to Billy how he’s been snookered, muddling her metaphors to the point of absurdity: “Sometimes when you win, you really lose. And sometimes when you lose, you really win. And sometimes when you win or lose you actually tie. And sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose. Winning or losing is all one organic mechanism, from which one extracts what one needs.”  I know…it makes no sense to me, either, and, of course, it runs contrary to Sidney’s more straight forward advice for Billy: “I’ve got four words for you. ‘Listen to the woman.’
After Gloria and Billy arrive at Sidney and Rhoda’s house, the women iron out a pact. Sidney and Billy will play for some big money in a tournament and split the proceeds fifty-fifty: enough for Rhonda and Sidney to put a down payment on her dream house and Billy and Gloria to pay off their debt to a loan shark…maybe. White Men Can’t Jump is a rather effortlessly sloppy mishmash; perversely pointless even as it fluently moves from one street ball playing vignette to the next. Filling out this thimble of a plot with a lot of colorful imagery – to match its’ equally colorful talk – Russell Boyd’s cinematography is the real star of this show; a lush and sundrenched display of southern California’s beaches and firm bodies chasing after the bouncing ball or just sailing past the camera in a thong and rollerblades. The film’s landscape is eye-candy with more than a hint of titillation; neither purely nor simply put together, but effectively showcasing nothing more than two hours of glossy distraction and silliness masquerading as competent story-telling.         
Plot in a nutshell: Sidney Deane and a group of street-ballers are playing a pickup basketball game when one of the players on the other team pulls a muscle. Sidney goads his opponents to allow him to pick their replacement; choosing the whitest cracker on the bench - Billy Hoyle. Deane’s choice is, of course, predicated on his own racial bias; that white people know absolutely nothing about playing ball. Calling Billy out as a chump, Billy instead proves he’s more than capable of giving Deane and his arrogant brethren a run for their money. In fact, he wins the game for the opposition; then taunts Sidney into a one on one challenge. Sidney bets the bankroll on getting his revenge, but loses to Billy. It’s an embarrassing defeat – forcing Sidney to admit he’s been hustled by a pro…well…sort of.  
Billy returns to the crummy little apartment he shares with Gloria Clemente. The two are on the run because of an unpaid Vegas gambling debt. But Gloria has bigger dreams of landing a spot on Jeopardy!; spending long hours researching obscure facts in preparation for her big break. As it turns out, Billy doesn’t see the future…or rather, just thinks he’ll be able to hustle for cash for the rest of his life. It’s a dead end existence and, arguably, a young man’s game. If only Billy weren’t already approaching his mid-thirties we might better except his abject naiveté.  But let’s face it, Billy’s a bum. He doesn’t dream big – if, in fact, he dreams at all. He’s just satisfied with getting by, soaking up the sun, and wearing the moniker of ‘chump’ rather proudly with his baseball cap half-cocked to the side. It doesn’t make him cock of the walk, but you can’t convince Billy of this.
On the other hand, while Sidney talks a good game and presents himself as a misfit, just as arid of ambition as Billy, he’s actually a devoted family guy with a wife and baby, looking into ways of making Rhonda’s dreams of owning a home their reality. Taking Billy on in partnership for the ultimate con, the pair cut an impressive swath and split their proceeds. Only, during a crucial match Sidney falters and the game is lost. Billy has banked everything he had - $1,700 - on this game – an error in judgment that will prove more than a chronic miscalculation in due course. Worse, returning home to Gloria to explain the loss, Billy gets his wake-up call when Gloria informs him that he’s been played by Sidney. To prove Gloria wrong, Billy takes her to Sidney’s apartment where he immediately learns just how right she is. Gloria appeals to Rhonda to give her back Billy’s half of the losses. It’s a ‘no go’. But Rhonda establishes a more appealing grand plan: to reunite Sidney and Billy for a major 2-on-2 outdoor basketball tournament. While both Sidney and Billy bitterly resist the idea, Billy decides to give in and play the tournament with Sidney – being downright obnoxious to the competing teams to break their concentration. Sidney’s embarrassed. But Billy’s psychological warfare works its magic and they end up winning the grand prize of $5,000.
While pleased by the outcome, Sidney cannot help but mock Billy, telling him ‘white men can’t jump’. To prove otherwise, Billy bets his entire winnings on his ability to slam dunk. It’s a fool’s bet and Sidney resists it for as long as he can until he decides to teach Billy a lesson once and for all. Unable to put his money where his mouth is, Billy loses his $2500 to Sidney who leaves him stranded at the abandoned courts while he goes home to take care of business with Rhonda. Gloria has had enough. She dumps Billy who, upon learning Sidney has a friend who works on the set of Jeopardy!, begs him to help Gloria land her big-time spot on the popular game show. Gloria gets her chance and makes the most of it, smoking the competition and winning $14,100 on her very first episode. After the taping, Billy sneaks backstage to serenade Gloria with his guitar. She resists at first, but cannot help but be touched by his attempt to understand her feelings. The two reconcile.
In the meantime, Sidney’s apartment is burglarized. He’s lost everything and needs a favor from Billy – to play one more big-time hustle to win back enough to start over. This places Billy in an awful predicament, as one of the preconditions of Gloria taking him back is that he will swear off street ball forever, settle down and get a real job. Unable to refuse Sidney his chance to recoup his losses, Billy tells Gloria he’s going to street ball just one more time. Assessing that with Billy things will never change, Gloria leaves for good. Billy and Sidney take their hustle to the big time and, in a very evenly matched confrontation, they barely prevail.  Billy returns to his apartment hours later to find Gloria has made good on her threat to leave him. The mobsters to whom Billy owes money arrive unexpectedly and, after dangling him over the edge of his balcony, decide to spare his life but take virtually all of his winnings, thus leaving Billy broke once more.
Billy begs Sidney to help get him a real job. Reluctantly, perhaps from a sense of either compassion or reciprocated loyalty, Sidney agrees, casually remarking to Billy about his breakup with Gloria; “Maybe you two were better off without each other.” His comment insights yet another competition of insults between these two…uh…friends. They’re right back where they started…debatably, with a marginally brighter future ahead of each. 

White Men Can’t Jump is a singularly premised movie – so singular, in fact – that it’s something of a credit to Shelton’s directorial prowess his one hit wonder never wears out its welcome. It’s not a joyful comedy or even a sassy one; the in-your-face rapidity of racial/sexist slurs having all the subtlety of getting kicked in the crotch with steel-toed shoes.  Snipes and Harrelson do what they can, each possessing genuine presence. But it’s the rank turgidity of this pseudo-buddy/buddy relationship that grates; the whole movie built around two broke guys who would rather play ball than be straight with one another.
Rosie Perez’ whiny Puerto Rican and Tyra Ferrell’s sister soul have more moxie than their men. They know the time and aren’t afraid to spend it on pursuing the American dream. The prospect of accepting responsibility for even an hour or two ruffles Sidney’s feathers. It damn near scares the solids out of Billy Hoyle, whose unwillingness to dig out of that perpetual hole he keeps falling into – both financially and in his imploding relationship with Gloria – is utterly toxic. There’s no two ways about it. Billy is the chump Sidney labeled him at the start of the movie. It’s a rather depressing realization, both for the character and the audience, because we’re used to Harrelson doing light and sunny stuff; just a good-time Charlie; big of heart but barren of brains.  

His Billy Hoyle is empty-headed; but he’s also insolent to a fault, ignorant in the extreme, and, tragically absent of any sort of human understanding beyond cleaning the lint from his own navel.  That’s a very sad human being. So, it isn’t all that much fun to watch Billy’s life repeatedly implode: it’s actually depressing. Because White Men Can’t Jump isn’t a melodrama. Nor, for one moment, does it take itself seriously. Shelton’s screenplay is far too engrossed in circling the bowl with its raw sewage of profoundly crass toilet humor to offer these characters anything more than the Clift Notes edition on life and love. In the end, the action gets cartoony, the characterizations no less. White Men Can’t Jump will appeal to those who enjoy senseless entertainment. It isn’t a bad movie; just badly conceived, and, it doesn’t have much to say for itself.
There isn’t much to say about Fox’s Blu-ray transfer either, derived from older digital files merely bumped to a 1080p signal. Fox is rather notorious for treating its catalogue releases with this sort of ‘hit or miss’ mentality. Frankly, it stinks. Here's a thought to anyone listening over at Fox. Instead of releasing eight to ten catalogue titles a month and giving us only one or two true hi-def transfers, how about only releasing one or two and spreading out the timeline of release on the rest so that you can do right by each and every title? It's just a thought. Consider it - please!!!
Either a movie is worthy of a Blu-ray release or it isn’t and if it is then it deserves no less consideration than a complete and ‘brand new’ hi-def scan from original negative elements to satisfy our expectations for – as Fox publicity puts it – ‘the ultimate hi-def experience.’ White Men Can’t Jump on Blu-ray cannot lay claim to this. The image only marginally tightens up from its DVD counterpart; colors robust, but unrefined and contrast levels somewhat weaker than expected. The overall ‘smooth’ characteristic of the image – virtually absent in any sort of accurate depiction of film grain – is a dead giveaway that Fox is using 720p digital files to source this disc. 
The DTS 5.1 audio is competent but again, not unlike the video, doesn’t quite live up to expectations. It’s become something of a trend to call an ‘extended cut’ of a movie ‘an extra feature. We get both the director’s cut and the original theatrical trailer. There are marginal differences between these two versions best left for the first time viewer to figure out. We also get Riff’s music video, and, the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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