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Don Cheadle, minus the Courvoisier
BY JASON BLAIR
TALK TO ME: Directed by Kasi Lemmons. Written by Michael Genet and Rick Famujiwa. Cinematography, Stephane Fontaine. Music, Terence Blanchard. Starring Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mike Epps, Cedric the Entertainer, Taraji P. Henson and Martin Sheen. Focus Features, 2007. R. 118 minutes.
Talk to Me, not to be confused with the Yasmine Bleeth TV movie or the Nirvana song or the Stevie Nicks song, is the new film starring Don Cheadle, an actor so gifted he can’t be mistaken for anyone else. The film purports to examine the ups and downs of Ralph “Petey” Greene, an ex-con who rose to prominence as a DJ during the 1960s in Washington, D.C. Released from prison, Petey seeks a job in radio with all the finesse of Paulie Walnuts, a style not lost on Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the programming head at WOL-AM. When Dewey puts Petey on the air, the station phones go beserk in support of Petey’s from-the-hip rants, raising two distinct possibilities: One, that Petey’s arrival will herald a golden age of talk radio, during which a city will turn to this urban impresario, however coarse; or two, that Talk to Me will aerosol a day-glo gloss to a flawed man who briefly made a difference. As it turns out, both predictions are correct.
|Petey Greene (Don Cheadle) gets some airtime in Talk to Me|
Early on, Petey’s unsophisticated tirades play well against Dewey’s highbrow stylings. It’s like watching Frazier land jabs on Ali. (Actually, Dewey confesses that his childhood idol was Johnny Carson, that mask of white control and restraint, to which Petey’s girl replies derisively, “It shows.”) Although Dewey learns to take some chances, fame goes straight to Petey’s head — or as Petey would say, both of his heads. One can’t help thinking of Boogie Nights, that masterful ensemble of perfect pitch and delivery, during the early part of Talk to Me. Then, suddenly, Martin Luther King Jr. is shot. Petey takes to the airwaves to soothe himself, where his performance amidst chaos is subtle and controlled. Dewey, sensing opportunity, insists that under his management, Petey can become a national figure, while Petey finally feels like he’s at home in his hometown. Dewey presses Petey into an upward spiral of engagements until, on their biggest stage together, Petey decides he’s had enough. Petey’s meltdown on national TV is the reason you’ve never heard of Petey Greene. Crispin Glover must be smiling to himself somewhere.
Unfortunately for Talk to Me, the tonal shift from gentle biopic to record of social upheaval unmoors the film. After MLK, the film lurches forward, but the wheels can’t support the carriage, and it breaks. Talk to Me aims for a breezy hipness, but it seems lazy and out of step. How slight Talk to Me feels once the film’s aperture opens beyond the immediate field of view; how quiet it seems despite the tumult of its times and the quality of its performers. Cheadle, usually so reliable, overplays Petey at times; the energy he brings dulls and blurs the ragged Petey, rather than bringing him into focus. Ejiofor, so promising in smaller roles prior to this (Kinky Boots, Children of Men), is at the mercy of a screenplay that has him saying one thing but doing another. Consistent, Talk to Me isn’t. Veteran actors like Martin Sheen and Cedric the Entertainer are nearly wasted here, given how little effort the script makes to flesh them out. Visually, Talk to Me is problematic: The film is cleansed of the soot and grit of the times, relying upon a palette so bright that even the wigs have a chemical sheen. I kept expecting the cast to break into song, so staged do some of the later scenes feel. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen.