Who says you have to pander?

Posted: Mar 28, 2006 12:01 AM

An amazing thing happened at cineplexes across the country this weekend. Adults went back to the movies.

Spike Lee’s latest more than outperformed expectations; it brought box-office receipts out of yet another month-long slump with an audience made up primarily of… drum roll, please… grownups. (According to Universal Pictures' exit polling, 68 percent of attendees were over 30 years old). Starring about as impressive a cast as any director could wish for (Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, and Christopher Plummer), Inside Man’s $30 million take boosted ticket sales more than 13 percent over last year at this time and claimed the number one spot.

And it did it all without pandering to the basest impulses of consumers. No explosions, no reality-bending action sequences, not even—unless you count 43-year-old Jodie Foster—a major babe. Just a tightly choreographed script, first-rate acting, and a bit of directorial flair.

In an old-fashioned gumshoe thriller that sees every character angling to advance his own agenda, Washington plays New York City Police Detective Keith Frazier. Still under a cloud of suspicion from a previous assignment, Frazier jumps at the chance to head up a crisis situation when word comes in that a band of bank robbers have just taken 50 hostages at First Manhattan Bank. Headed up by an enigmatic mastermind by the name of Dalton Russell (Owen, who seems to be making a specialty of such whodunits), the thieves only play at negotiation, inexplicably demanding things both sides of the standoff know they’re not going to get.

But Russell isn’t your typical bank robber and this isn’t your typical bank heist. Around the periphery of the chaos, power players contrive to wield their influence over a situation that shouldn’t hold any interest for them. The mayor calls in favors so a mysterious “consultant” (Jodie Foster) can gain access to both the police and the hostage-takers. She was hired to manage any developments by an even more mysterious banking executive (Christopher Plummer). And though Frazier’s sure none of their intentions are benevolent, he can’t prove it because, as he’s told, the trio’s interest is “above his pay grade.”

Given his past cinematic tirades, some people might be inclined to steer clear of a Spike Lee Joint. But other than a couple of swipes at capitalism’s “haves” (one character claims half of the Fortune 500 got there by breaking the law either in fact or in spirit), and some startlingly incongruous use of obscenities, Lee keeps his axe-grinding to a minimum. Even when he does indulge, it’s in moments where it’s actually appropriate to the story.

Lee has always made race an issue in his films, but here he doses it with humor and a kind of civic pride. When a Sikh complains of being stopped at airport security because he looks Muslim, Frazier counters, “Yeah, but I bet you can always get a cab when you need one.”

As the world’s melting pot, the give and take of racial assimilation is part of our national character—the tension it sometimes produces a thing to celebrate for its uniqueness. For once, Lee seems to appreciate this and, at least in this movie, his perceptiveness sets him apart from the directorial pack.

If anything, his meditation on the American spirit stalls the pace. Thankfully, crisp, quirky performances from Washington, Owen, and Foster fill the space and make us forget how slowly the plot is inching forward. Their characters may smack of pulp fiction, but each makes us believe every fedora-tipping, stiletto-stalking second.

Despite Hollywood’s contention that adults don’t go to the movies anymore and they have no choice but to pander to indiscriminate male adolescents, sharp, sophisticated entertainment can still break away from the pack. Granted, these films probably won’t make Harry Potter or Narnia money, but then again, as their ongoing profit decline shows, neither do a lot of projected blockbusters these days.

So perhaps some other brave executives will take a cue from Inside Man’s ticket sales over the weekend and greenlight more projects like it. Because when studios make smart, quality films, smart, quality audiences will show up to appreciate them.