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Some steam, but more rant

Samuel L. Jackson's fervent orating can't quite redeem the overheated shenanigans of `Black Snake Moan.'

March 02, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

If you name a character Lazarus in a story about two people whose damaged hearts need reviving, you're well-served to cast Samuel L. Jackson. During a career in which the actor has raised righteous indignation to an art form, Jackson has proved time and again that the quality of the material is beside the point. The man is going to orate and you are going to listen.

And you will listen.

Though "Black Snake Moan" is unadulterated deep-fried silliness from "Hustle & Flow" filmmaker Craig Brewer, Jackson makes it indisputably more palatable. It's still not a very good movie, but it's intermittently entertaining (and sometimes unintentionally funny).

Jackson plays the bluesman named Lazarus, who years earlier laid down his guitar when he found religion, married and settled into farming. But the blues are simmering within him once again because his wife left him for his brother.

Meanwhile, in a nearby trailer, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), a National Guardsman with a nasty case of the yips gets called up for duty and says a lusty goodbye to his hellcat girlfriend, Rae (Christina Ricci). Distraught and lonely after Ronnie's departure, Rae doesn't lose any time getting wasted and embarking on a sexual rampage that leaves her beaten and bloodied in a ditch up the road from Laz's farm.

He scoops up her tiny white body in his big black arms and before you can say "Mandingo," he's shackled her to the radiator in his house using a 40-pound chain. But lest the movie's lascivious billboards give you the wrong idea, you must be forewarned that Laz's intentions are pure -- if false imprisonment can be called pure -- and he tells the practically tubercular Rae, "I aim to cure you of your wickedness." What follows is an evangelical exorcism.

The fevered scenario feels ripped from "The Jerry Springer Show," but the execution is more T.D. Jakes with a Dr. Phil chaser. There are some overcooked scenes of Ricci going at it with Timberlake and being on the receiving end of some rough sex with Tehronne (David Banner), the local drug dealer and part-time pimp, but the film's steamiest scene actually involves fully-clothed dancing in a juke joint.

Much of "Black Snake Moan" has a fire-and-brimstone tone as Laz reads scripture for counsel on how to rid Rae of her ravenous promiscuity and calls in his spiritual advisor, Preacher R.L. (John Cothran), when the going gets really tough. But it's love that is the ultimate antidote to the soul-crushing sadness that plagues the characters, and that is too easy of an out.

If you can get past the more misogynistic imagery, there are some tender moments between Jackson and Ricci. He becomes downright paternal in his protectiveness and she beams at him in wide-eyed gratitude.

There's an odd timelessness to the movie. It's set in the present day, but it bears a fable-like quality. Laz seems to make a decent living as a one-man ag unit, hauling his produce to town and quaintly selling it from the bed of his truck. Although the story provocatively places race front-and-center, Brewer does not really address it. In the town, blacks and whites eye one another suspiciously but appear to otherwise live in parallel universes where conflicts are almost nonexistent.

As with "Hustle & Flow," which put Brewer on the map two years ago, the writer-director displays a real passion for the music and a knack for using it to create mood. But it's not enough to overcome the thinness of his characters or the greeting card sentiment that pulls the rug out from what came before.

kevin.crust@latimes.com

"Black Snake Moan." MPAA rating: R for strong sexual content, language, some violence and drug use. 1 hour, 56 minutes. In general release.

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