Artisan // 2002 // 85 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // April 3rd, 2003
Get ready to mix it up!
Beethoven and Sarah have been friends since they were kids. After college, they decide to move in together and start an advertising business. They work and live in the same Los Angeles loft. Unbeknown to Bay (his nickname), Sarah has been in love with him ever since high school. She confesses her feelings and, at first, Bay is hesitant to respond. He has lived his whole life with the staunch belief that black people should only date within their race. He does not feel comfortable being intimate with the white Sarah. But after landing a big client, a romantic dinner celebration turns into a long night of passion for the now interpersonal, interracial business partners. Sarah proudly flaunts their relationship while Bay is still tentative. He tries many not so subtle ways of expressing his reservations. Still, Sarah can only look at her friend and partner with passion in her eyes. But when a handsome Caucasian associate starts to hit on Sarah, Bay has his feelings and prejudices tested. And when their company loses the same valuable client that started the whole relationship (potentially over the issue of their personal involvement), tensions spin wildly out of control. Bay finally tells Sarah how he feels. He thinks he is saving her the embarrassment of dirty looks and vile gossip. He may be simply running away from the truth about himself and his misguided ideals. Will Beethoven and Sarah stay together, or is this one Swirl destined to melt away?
It's not often that a light romantic comedy decides to flesh out its characters and its situations with tough political and social questions about racism, prejudice, and public perception. But buried at the center of the well-intentioned Swirl is a strong statement about interracial relationships and the complicatedly interwoven aspects of black culture within current white society. While keeping the love affair strongly at the forefront, Swirl (current street slang for a black and white coupling) allows wonderfully quirky ancillary characters to step in and make important, thought provoking points. In Carl Anthony Payne II and Stephanie Denise Griffin we get believable, attractive leads whose friendship is obvious. It's there love chemistry that's a tad lacking (Payne's Bay seems to merely be putting up with Griffin's Sarah, while she tends to express affection by reverting to puppy love cow eyes). The script by first time writer/director Les Wilson maintains its smart, savvy insights without sacrificing "real speak." The characters may have a lot to say, but they do not resort to sociological psychobabble. Wilson tends to over-employ directing and storytelling tricks, any one of which would normally overpower this low budget movie with their noticeable artistic stylization. He gives us Woody Allen style vignettes with characters talking to the screen as if being interviewed or doing stand up comedy. There's a sassy imaginary black "sista" who shows up intermittently to play Jiminy Cricket to Beethoven's irritated and confused psyche. We get title card lines of dialogue that showcase the themes and issues to be addressed in a very Tarantino-esque manner. There are dream sequences and cuts to parallel realities. And we even get a dose of Spike Lee oriented historical pontification in the guise of some local boyz in the hood sitting around shooting the spit. But surprisingly, and thankfully, Wilson makes it all work. Never once do any of the camera or narrative shortcuts get in the way of the comedy or drama attempted.
It's just too bad that Wilson and Swirl are not bold or brave enough to take its controversial stance on issues all the way to the end. Once the characters are forced to face the philosophies tossed around by other players in the movie, Swirl can't seem to figure out where it wants to go. Instead, upon the truth being revealed and as our hurt and lonely couple face the possibility of life alone, we get nothing but musical montages. TOO MANY musical montages. One or two would have been sweet and emotionally insightful, as they worked at other times in the film. But by the time the fifth one rolls around, we begin to get antsy, wondering where the clever, intelligent dialogue disappeared. There is no resolution for the characters, no meaningful exchange of words. Instead, the narrative opts for slow motion sequences of the lovers wandering while silky R&B pulsates in the background. Even after we learn the characters' fate, we are then, again given another musical montage. And it's this song-based storytelling that stymies Swirl in the end. Up until the final ten minutes this has been an intelligent, witty and unusually shrewd look at the social acceptance of mixed race relationships. But without a strong word or two to go out on, the movie wraps up its plotlines in a far-too-convenient-for-what-came-before coda. It really deflates the film's power. What could have been something truly special and original shrivels up into a borderline disappointment. But since it worked so well before it stumbled, Swirl is still recommended for all the things it gets (and says) right about ethnicity and ethics.
Artisan treats Swirl rather well in the sound and vision department. Shot mostly on digital cameras, the full screen image is wonderful. There is a good depth of color and no flaring or video artifacting to be found. Even in night and other dimly lit settings, there are no noticeable grain or compression issues. This is a very good-looking 1.33:1 transfer. Aurally, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround doesn't really come alive until the splendid hip-hop, rap, and soul soundtrack takes front and center. When it does though, it showcases all the channels perfectly. It would have been nice for Artisan to express a little faith in this project and include a director's commentary track, or some manner of making-of material, since filmmaker Les Wilson has created a distinct and professional looking and feeling film under what must have been less than big budget circumstances. What extras the company does offer are just terrible. They include what has to be one of the worst trailers ever made for a romantic comedy (it sells Swirl like a sort of foul mouthed gangsta There's Something About Mary, which it is clearly not) and a simple filmography that focuses solely on the leads. Swirl deserves better than this. Even though it chickens out in the end, this is still a funny, clever and thought provoking exploration of that age old social conundrum revolving around the mixing of ebony with ivory. A serving of this tasty, twisty treat will be more than enough to satisfy most moviegoer's sentimental sweet tooth. Swirl is a fine first effort, and Les Wilson is a cinematic voice to watch in the future.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R