Spike Lee's latest cinematic salvo, She Hate Me, is a sprawling, exhausting, ambitious mess of a movie that tries to be thematically dense but is ultimately substantively spare. A director often accused of adopting a strident tone when it comes to hot-button topics, his follow-up to 2002's critically acclaimed and criminally overlooked 25th Hour deals with nothing less than the very identity of the modern African-American male, lipstick lesbians becoming parents, the sham that is American medicine, corporate greed and whistle blowing, some not-so-subtle Bush bashing (indeed, the opening credits' final image is that of President George W. Bush on a three dollar bill) and tangentially, the aftereffects of Watergate. Lee narratively whipsaws between all of the aforementioned and at 130 minutes, She Hate Me belabors its points - despite occasional bursts of humor - and wears out its welcome long before the final credits roll.
The film, co-written by Lee with Michael Genet, centers on John Henry Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), a young, powerful executive with the fictional Progeia corporation, a company on the verge of introducing an AIDS vaccine that would rock the pharmaceutical world and change lives. A sudden, catastrophic tragedy rocks Progeia just as the FDA rejects the firm's application for approval. John comes into possession of volatile information that, following a desperate act of sabotage by his employers, he's forced to act upon.
Soon, strapped for cash and backed against the figurative wall, John's ex-girlfriend (she dumped him for another woman), Fatima (Kerry Washington) proposes that he impregnate her and lesbian friends for 10 grand a pop. Initially reluctant, John goes ahead with her plan; soon, he's morally conflicted yet rolling in those all-American greenbacks. Despite protests from his family and friends, John continues his breeding odyssey with what appears to be most of Manhattan's gay female community.
Mixed into these dueling storylines are those of Simona Bonasera (Monica Bellucci), a gay Mafia daughter who visits John; the tale of Frank Wells (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the African-American security guard who busted the Watergate burglars and John's parents' marriage showing signs of strain as his father's (Jim Brown) diabetes worsens. It's enough to make your head spin and at times, She Hate Me threatens to derail but thanks to Anthony Mackie's surprisingly strong and fearless performance as the modern-day martyr John Henry Armstrong (as well as strong turns from Washington, Woody Harrelson, Ellen Barkin, John Turturro and Bellucci), Lee's diatribe about nearly everything from the last two years doesn't stray (too often) into the area reserved for the likes of hyper-paranoiacs like Oliver Stone.
Hyperbolic cinematic exercises notwithstanding, She Hate Me is bracing stuff; Lee, never one to shy away from depicting human sexuality and violence with equal vigor, gets a chance to showcase both. A graphic suicide scene as well as numerous scenes of John working his magic in bed may send more squeamish viewers scrambling for the remote. It's to Lee's credit that when he goes for the end zone, he goes full-throttle and expects viewers to tag along for the ride. An American filmmaker whose passion and enthusiasm are enough to warrant watching even his more egregious missteps, Lee has crafted a rambling, provocative and occasionally incoherent joint this time out but it's rarely anything less than completely engaging.
Matthew Libatique's gritty, verite cinematography is given a fine 1.85:1 widescreen anamorphic transfer that occasionally shows a little grain or edge enhancement. Overall, it's a nice presentation of somewhat difficult material; Lee changes filters, film stock and lighting with such frequency that a more subpar transfer might have made the film much less watchable than it is.
Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 stereo are onboard She Hate Me; your speakers won't get too much of a workout (except for one nifty moment where, during a Harrelson motivation speech, the word "you" is spread to four different speakers in rapid succession). Just be sure your volume's turned down during the raunchy sex scenes – you have been sufficiently warned.
Spike Lee contributes a thoughtful, illuminating commentary track to the film, although there are often significant stretches of silence; he digs into everything from the care lavished upon the opening credits to researching the film's background, its influences and references (one of the actors from "The Tin Drum" makes an appearance in the film) as well as some nuts and bolts behind-the-scenes information. In addition, the 10-minute featurette "She Hate Me: Behind The Scenes" has the cast waxing reminiscent about shooting the film in New York, working with Spike Lee and what attracted them to the film (hint: it had a lot to do with working with Spike Lee). Seven deleted scenes, mainly to flesh out small character moments or provide alternate takes, are on hand as are previews for She Hate Me, Baadasssss!, Warriors of Heaven and Earth, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, Doing Hard Time, Trois: The Escort, Are We There Yet? and the She Hate Me soundtrack.
She Hate Me is pure Spike Lee; unashamed of tackling thorny issues that most sane filmmakers would give a wide berth, Lee plunges headfirst into the disorienting miasma that is America, circa 2005 and does so with unapologetic gusto. It's not a film that will suit everyone (its length and subject matter see to that) but nevertheless, it's recommended for Lee aficionados and a suggested rental for the curious.