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MOVIE REVIEW

'Spinning Into Butter'

There's little subtlety in this adaptation of Rebecca Gilman's play about race issues that flare up at a small college.

March 27, 2009|Glenn Whipp

A college dean at an elite Vermont university confronts her own racist leanings in "Spinning Into Butter," a drama that will work or not largely depending if you thought "Crash" was revelatory or risible.

This film adaptation of Rebecca Gilman's play has taken a circuitous route to the screen, despite Sarah Jessica Parker's headlining presence. Completed in 2006, the film finally arrives months after Americans have elected their first black president.

The movie, adapted by Gilman and Doug Atchison and flatly directed by New York theater veteran Mark Brokaw, opens up the play, but not always in service to the material. The drama takes place at Belmont University, a "bastion of liberal idealism," that nevertheless finds itself in the news for the wrong reasons when a black student (Paul James) is targeted by threatening let- ters.

The school's officious administrators circle the wagons, holding "forums for tolerance" that prohibit students from using the events to communicate their feelings. This one-sided exchange boomerangs, bringing out all kinds of latent intolerance existing on campus.

The heart of the movie is the shifting relationship between Dean of Students Sarah Daniels (Parker), a woman who outwardly believes she's doing the right thing, and local black TV reporter Aaron Carmichael (Mykelti Williamson), a character invented for the film. The foils have no compunction about hurling ugly truths at each other, most of the time much too literally to work on screen.

This is particularly evident when Daniels finally explains to Carmichael the source of the movie's countless, nightmarish flashbacks to her previous job at a predominantly black college in Chicago. Daniels cops to coming to believe that black people are "lazy and stupid." The whole exchange feels false and heavy-handed -- and for good reason. In the play, Daniels makes the admission to a white faculty member, which fits better into the material's theme of unseen racism in society.

Despite the film's haphazard choices and aversion to subtlety, Parker and Williamson come off as appealing sparring partners. If those behind "Spinning Into Butter" had trusted them more, acknowledging the material's themes of racial pandering without always having to go for the roundhouse punch, the movie might have transcended its TV-movie trappings.

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'Spinning Into Butter'

MPAA rating: R for language

Running time: 1 hour,

26 minutes

Playing: At Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500

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