Why Do Fools Fall in Love
1998, R, 115 min. Directed by Gregory Nava. Starring Larenz Tate, Halle Berry, Lela Rochon, Vivica Fox, Paul Mazursky, Little Richard.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Aug. 28, 1998
This isn't exactly the most unique story in rock & roll history. A naïve young black singer hooks up with a parasitic white manager who snakes him out of most of the profits from his chartbusting singles. Then, after the singer's rapid decline and untimely drug-related death, figures from his past converge like hyenas to scavenge the bleaching bones of his estate. But even though Gregory Nava's embellished biopic about Fifties hitmaker Frankie Lymon offers no new perspectives on the pop music biz's already well-exposed dark underside, it's still a revelation in terms of Nava's capabilities as a filmmaker. Based on Nava's past work (El Norte, Mi Familia, Selena), I've always pegged him as an overrated screenwriter-director whose stilted, earnest-unto-death writing undercuts the power of his impressive -- if derivative -- command of film's visual language. But from the opening blast of orange-and-chartreuse credits and turbocharged doo-wop music to the closing close-up of Little Richard's devilish, mascaraed mug, there's no trace here of the tedious, myth-mongering Nava of yore. The obvious explanation is that, for the first time in any of his major features, Nava has turned the writing chores over to someone else -- in this case, talented first-timer Tina Andrews. As a result, the dialogue and pacing have a new snap and suppleness and the movie takes flight like a balloon that's jettisoned a few hundred pounds of damp sandbags. Plenty of credit is due to the actors too. Tate (love jones, Menace II Society) is close to Academy Award territory with his portrayal of Lymon, a white-hot young orb of ball lightning who's utterly lost in any context where he has to confront the basic emptiness behind his angelic face and electric stage persona. Rochon (Waiting to Exhale), Berry (Losing Isaiah), and Fox (Soul Food) are equally delightful as the wildly diverse trio of ex-wives battling it out in court for $4 million in unpaid royalties that Lymon's manager (Mazursky) owes the estate. They're especially wonderful in the down-and-dirty personal confrontations that occur late in the court battle, veering abruptly from amusingly specious female bonding moments to full-pitched verbal catfighting. But most of the credit for this movie's ability to sustain energy and interest despite its marginally interesting subject matter has to go to Nava. Ditching the noble sepia-tone kitsch of Mi Familia for vibrant, solarized colors, relentlessly imaginative shotmaking and a giddy narrative surge that he gracefully integrates into a flashback-driven story, he often generates a level of rock & roll vibrancy that one associates more with young bucks like Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) than fiftyish veterans. Why Do Fools Fall in Love probably won't be remembered as the best film Nava ever made. The story's a bit too commonplace for that. But with its intriguing hints of untapped creative energy it may well be something just as important in the long haul: a turning point.