Sunday, March 4, 2012

Street Smart Movie Review: 25 Years Ago This Month

New York in the 1980s makes you think of grimy streets and a Times Square overrun by prostitutes, pimps and sex shows. To walk through those streets of Manhattan now is like another world compared to what’s on screen in Street Smart, a long forgotten 1987 film starring Christopher Reeve as a magazine reporter who gets unwittingly mixed up in the seedy underworld after committing a truly dunderheaded act of stupidity.

It is that depiction of New York along with the stilted dialogue by David Freeman that makes this film feel very dated. Reeve plays Jonathan Fisher who we first meet pitching story ideas to his editor in one of those scenes that completely misunderstands how magazines are put together and how journalism happens. Jonathan exhausts his legitimate ideas as his boss has little interest in any of the excruciatingly boring ideas he has. Construction cranes? So Jonathan claims to know a pimp who will give him access for an expose on a day in the life.

Having only the weekend to find a pimp and get a juicy story out of him turns out to be not as easy as Jonathan expected. What a shock! No one on the street is willing to talk and he very nearly gets his head kicked in. I find it hard to believe that any journalist living in Manhattan would be so na├»ve as to think he could fish a story like this. Then he unbelievably brings his girlfriend Alison (Mimi Rogers) along with him to see what it’s like. After she is nearly assaulted by a thug in a dive bar they decide maybe it was a bad idea.

As if this didn’t defy credulity enough, Jonathan files a completely bogus piece that his editor adores so much he now thinks the crane story is a brilliant idea! Freeman’s screenplay doesn’t bother to flesh out Jonathan’s character enough to give us any reason to believe he would make a leap from supposedly decent reporter to total fraud in the space of one weekend. In the years since Street Smart was made we’ve seen examples in Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair that these things tend to start small and grow with time and confidence.

He finagles his newfound fame into a gig doing a prime spot on TV news in which he exposes minor frauds and captures stories from the street that other journalists aren’t getting in a program called “Street Smart.” Then by some miracle of fate, Jonathan’s story bears such close resemblance to an actual pimp nicknamed Fast Black (Morgan Freeman) that not only does the District Attorney who’s trying to convict him for murder recognize the man, but also to Black’s defense attorney! The DA actually comes knocking on Jonathan’s apartment door. No, he doesn’t contact him at the magazine’s office, you know, the magazine where the story was actually published? Sorry, I remain incredulous. Because of these attorneys’ beliefs and the fact that for obvious reasons Jonathan is loath to admit the truth, he gets mired in the court case with a judge who wants him to turn over his notes to aid with the conviction and Fast Black wants him to write phony notes to help with the defense.

Jerry Schatzberg’s direction of the street scenes and just about everything involving Fast Black keeps the film somewhat grounded in reality. Morgan Freeman anchors the movie more than anything Schatzberg or Freeman could have concocted. His Fast Black is menacing, but charismatic. That’s how we can sort of believe Jonathan gets so easily pulled into his world. When Freeman is on screen there’s always tension because we don’t know when Black is going to turn on a dime and do something violent. Kathy Baker plays Punchy, one of Black’s prostitutes who takes a liking to Jonathan. He goes to Punchy as a journalist and ends up as a client in a scene that has you cringing because you know he cares about Alison, but also completely understanding of how a man in his position could so easily fall into that trap.

As a minor time capsule in the history of cinema Street Smart has some marginal value. It’s worth seeing Freeman in his first Oscar-nominated role and to see genuine risk-taking from an actor we now know best for playing the consummate “Magical Negro” roles. But again, Freeman’s handle on journalism is so tenuous it makes parts of the story simply preposterous. How does a man who fabricates an entire story for print journalism get to continue in the profession on television and covering a story for which he was an integral player without even a hint of disclosure to the viewers? Yes, the ending takes absurdity to a new level.

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