Judge Ben Saylor once tried to pass himself off as Brian Setzer, but the only instrument he could play was a tuba.
This better be some Saturday night!
In 2007, master independent filmmaker John Sayles released his 16th feature as a writer-director: Honeydripper, a period drama worlds removed from its predecessor: the sprawling, politically-charged ensemble piece Silver City. But by cutting down the characters and working in a period setting, does Sayles improve upon the lackluster quality of his previous film?
Facts of the Case
In 1950 Alabama, Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis (Danny Glover, Shooter) is in a bind. The Honeydripper Lounge, the juke joint he runs with pal Maceo (Charles S. Dutton, Rudy), isn't drawing the crowds needed to stay afloat. In a desperate bid to get more patrons, Tyrone sends for red-hot New Orleans musician Guitar Sam. But as the Saturday when Guitar Sam is scheduled to perform arrives and Guitar Sam is nowhere in sight, Tyrone needs to do some fast thinking if he's going to save his business.
For anyone familiar with John Sayles' work, particularly his films from Matewan on, my plot summary should have raised a red flag. At his best, Sayles weaves plot-dense tales packed with multiple characters and interesting storylines. This can be seen in Sayles classics such as Matewan, Lone Star and Sunshine State, but is nowhere to be found in Honeydripper, a largely listless movie that, for Sayles, is surprisingly unoriginal.
With Honeydripper, Sayles still populates his film with a fairly large cast, but this time around, he doesn't really give any of them much to do. Blues musician Keb' Mo' is cast as a blind guitarist who wanders around the small town the film is set in, picking his guitar and kibitzing with the townsfolk. Sayles vet Mary Steenburgen (Sunshine State, Casa de los Babys) is wasted in a one-scene appearance as a woman for whom Tyrone's wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) works. Really, the only actors who aren't completely wasted are Danny Glover and Hamilton, who both get at least a decent amount of screen time.
Tyrone is the film's main character, and Glover was a great choice for the role. The actor's speaking voice conveys weariness and hardship so readily that it's almost too easy to have Glover in the movie, as he perfectly communicates Tyrone's low-key desperation as he struggles to save his business. I was especially glad to see Glover acquit himself so nicely in this considering that the last movie I saw the actor in was the deplorable Shooter.
Hamilton is also well cast as Tyrone's wife. She gives the role the necessary pride and dignity, and her scenes with Glover are terrific. Her scenes attending church services in a tent, however, don't work as well. Her character is undergoing an internal crisis in the film, and these church services are (at least I'm pretty sure they are) supposed to be the source of Delilah's spiritual reawakening, but Sayles never really fleshes out this portion of the film. Hamilton really gives it her all, but the script doesn't hold up its end of the bargain.
For a two-hour movie, there isn't a whole lot of story to Honeydripper, which is all the more shocking when one considers Sayles wrote the film. The main thrust of the plot is Tyrone's bid to save the Honeydripper, a storyline that doesn't feel particularly original, and is never all that compelling. Worse, the person Tyrone picks to pretend to be Guitar Sam, a new guy in town named Sonny (Gary Clark Jr.), is never developed as a character beyond some friendly conversation with Tyrone's daughter China Doll (Yaya DaCosta, excellent). I'm sure Sayles was trying to imbue Sonny with some sort of mythical quality, but all it does is make Sonny less a character than a plot device.
In addition, there is an entire subplot involving a pair of cotton pickers named Dex (Sean Patrick Thomas, The Fountain) and Junebug (Kel Mitchell, Goodburger) that goes absolutely nowhere. And I mean nowhere. Try as I might after watching Honeydripper, I could think of absolutely no reason for Sayles to spend any time whatsoever with these characters. They do not play any significant role in the main events of the film.
Screen Media Films' DVD of Honeydripper gives a nice, clear image that really allows Dick Pope's cinematography to sparkle. The sound is a little weak when it comes to dialogue, although Mason Daring's score and the movie's songs come through loud and clear. In terms of extras, I'm a bit confused. On the official Web site for the DVD release of Honeydripper a director's commentary is listed as a feature. However, it is nowhere to be found on the for-review-purposes-only copy of Honeydripper that was provided to DVD Verdict; instead, there are some interviews with cast and crew and a behind-the-scenes featurette. The behind-the-scenes featurette runs about a half hour and features Sayles, producer Maggie Renzi, members of the cast, and crew and others discussing the making of the film. It's reasonably interesting, if very poorly shot. The interviews, however, are a bit of a cheat, because there's considerable overlap between them and the behind-the-scenes featurette, so really, you're getting one and a half extras. Keep in mind, however, that my score regarding extras is based solely on the content of the disc I received, and does not necessarily reflect the score I might have given had all the features been present for evaluation. In addition, the site lists a Spanish subtitle track, but my disc had no subtitles of any kind.
Honeydripper boasts some pretty visuals and decent performances, but Sayles' deeply flawed script consigns this film to the realm of his less successful efforts. Considering that this comes after the mediocre work that was Silver City, here's hoping that Sayles reverses this trend and returns to the sharp work of his halcyon days sometime soon.
Guilty of failing to live up to the best of this filmmaker's works.
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Studio: Screen Media Films
• Interviews with cast and crew
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