CIFF: Mr. Sophistication, by Aaron Pinkston
Of all the films I’ve seen from the Chicago International Film Festival thus far, Mr. Sophistication has been, by far, the biggest let down. I wasn’t expecting anything great out of the film, but I found the premise intriguing, much more than the ultimate product. In the film, Harry Lennix plays Ron Waters, a “Richard Pryor-type” entertainer who, after a past breakdown, is now getting a second chance at the big time. We’ve seen hundreds of artist redemption stories before, but there was something about the heavily serious stand-up comedy film that grabbed my attention. Adding in the racial element of the film also intrigued me, as we don’t see a lot of films tackle what it’s like to be an African American entertainment superstar. Sadly, though, Mr. Sophistication flops lazily on the screen, becoming laughably bad by the end.
To start with something positive, director Danny Green and star Harry Lennix get the look and feel right, at least initially. Though set in contemporary times, it has that wonderful look of a 1960s period piece, with the well-tailored suits and dark nightclub atmospheres. Lennix plays “Mr. Sophistication” down to the letter — he’s dapper, cool, believeable as a man who could have once been a star. He nails the old-school black persona, mixed in with a little rat pack quality. By the end of the film, though, you see he plays this to a fault, as the dramatic moments really flop. I can’t tell if Lennix is playing to keep the character cool or if he just can’t quite find the right attitude, but there is absolutely no fire in the performance when the film desperately needs it.
This ties into the biggest problem I had with Mr. Sophistication — we don’t experience the lows of his career, outside of one clunky scene. The film tells us over and over again how great Ron Waters used to be and how terrible his falling out was, but the movie we have now doesn’t amount to much more than a silly love triangle and failed relationship film. I like the redemption angle, but from the film we got, I would have preferred seeing the story that characters constantly reminisce about — the story about the height of Waters’s stardom, and subsequent downfall with drugs, overconfidence and race relations. Near the very end of the film, Waters is shown a videotape of the apparent moment where everything had come to a head, during an appearance on a late night talk show. This should be the dramatic burst we’ve all been waiting for, but I was more confused by what was supposed to be a taped segment edited like it was a part of the film — there are even shots in the segment where the camera men are visible. This is a strange directing choice, where I would think the very straight, natural moment could have had more impact.
Another oddity in the film are the stand-up sequences performed by Waters, which are meant to punctuate the dramatic scenes and provide the best opportunity to show us why Waters was once a big deal. Most of the routines are fine. Lennix shows he has charisma and the ultra cool persona will usually play well on stage. There are other major routines in the film that feel like a random person performing at an open mic. The first performance we see Waters give on his redemption tour is extensively about the George Foreman grill. The conclusion of the film, the big time concert that will put Waters back in the mainstream spotlight, is about chain e-mails — the ones where you are supposed to pass them onto ten others or you’ll never fall in love or your mother will die or something equally horrible. With these two setpieces, I scratched my head and thought that maybe we were actually somewhere in the mid-90s, but no, all accounts seem to suggest that the film takes place in our time. Even forgetting that, I just don’t see this as the character’s genuine point-of-view. If Waters is supposed to be a “Richard Pryor-type” entertainer, shouldn’t he be ranting about ideas more transcendent, more impactful? Even if the jokes were great in these segments (they were not), I just can’t see a type of comic like Ron Waters delivering this material. I understand that it is nearly impossible to portray this type of once-megastar and write words that will live up to this, but it just doesn’t cut it. Also, annoyingly, nearly every scene after one of Waters’s gigs or scenes that take place out in public, there is a random person that comes up to him and says how great he is or how much they enjoyed the show. They must have been watching something else.
Finally, the main crux of the drama in Mr. Sophistication comes from the relationships between Waters and his longtime wife (played by Tatum O’Neal) and a young hottie that looks vaguely like Megan Fox. The young love interest is basically a caricature of a young person and seems too cognizant of her role as a young person — I think she literally says something like “You should be with me because I’m young and hot” at some point. The relationship between Waters and this younger girl doesn’t have any spark or fire, not in the scenes where they are making love or the scenes where they are fighting with each other. Even though the audience shouldn’t ever condone this new relationship, we should feel conflicted for Ron and understand the rejuvenation in this youthful fling, but it’s impossible. The film also doesn’t do a great job at displaying the problems in Ron’s marriage — it just seems to be one of those deals of being married and bored.
I’ll close here with two examples that signify the strange failures of Mr. Sophistication. First is during the argument between Waters and his mistress which leads into the conclusion of the film. The young girl doesn’t understand why Ron doesn’t pay more attention to her or why he has to work so much, to which Waters says “I’m touching people.” This makes sense — Waters is in full gear on his redemption tour and he’s affecting all the people we giving him kudos throughout the film. Her response: “You’re literally touching people?” What? I mean, the character didn’t seem all too bright throughout, but huh? The other, I’ll just leave this here with you so you can chew on it. Following this fight comes a montage where Waters is preparing for his ultimate gig and we see the young woman contemplating whether she should go to the show, even though she knows her relationship is over. These moments should have some sort of dramatic tone and a chance to finally connect with the young woman and see things from her perspective. All throughout this final dramatic montage the soundtrack is playing “Video Games” by Lana Del Rey. Even if you like that song, it’s impossible to separate it from it’s context in popular culture. Mr. Sophistication, in many ways, just doesn’t get it.