Poor, poor, poor Craig Brewer. And, yes, I mean that sincerely. Oh sure, the Memphis-made film Hustle & Flow won the Sundance Audience Award and was picked up by Paramount and MTV in a package worth $16 million. But now Brewer's sophomore film has some serious hype to live up to. Sure, $16 million is chump change by Hollywood standards (made even chumpier when you consider that $7 million is dedicated funding for a pair of John Singleton projects), but, according to the media, that figure is also proof that Sundance, the original indie film festival, has sold its soul to the Hollywood hit machine.
Brewer has already started to feel the backlash. "It's like nobody can see my film," he says. "All they can see is the money. I'll be somewhere where nobody recognizes me, and I'll hear somebody say, 'Yeah, Hustle & Flow's good -- but not nine-million-dollars good.'"
When Brewer's first film, The Poor & Hungry, was nominated as both best feature film and best digital film at the Hollywood Film Festival in 2002, the young writer and director got his first lesson in how a film's price tag distorts reality like a fish-eye lens. The Poor & Hungry -- a good film by anyone's estimation --cost $20,000. It was in direct competition with $35 million Hollywood blockbusters, and its pricetag -- a certifiable miracle by L.A. standards -- lent Brewer's solid first endeavor an air of true genius. Now, as the wildly mixed notices for Hustle & Flow are coming in on the tail of "the big deal," Brewer's genius is being alternately affirmed and reconsidered. Here's some of what the national press is saying:
According to Newsday, "Hustle & Flow blasts with wicked-good music and bursts at the seams with humanity. Brewer is meticulous and uncompromising in his vision of Memphis' lower depths." The Hollywood Reporter compares the film to Rocky and On the Waterfront and credits the cast with "magic." In spite of wall-to-wall coverage by the international media, unqualified accolades have been few and far between.
The Fort Worth Star Telegram, compares Hustle & Flow to other Sundance films and deems it "considerably less accomplished." The Chicago Tribune's commentary is mealy-mouthed: "Like so many films at this year's fest, Hustle & Flow, featuring a hoodlum with a heart of gold, feels derivative -- even with [star Terrence] Howard's tour de force performance."
The Boston Globe weighs in on Brewer's film in the context of a compromised festival: "This is a land where ladies really do wear UGG boots with miniskirts; where some moviegoers turn off their cellphones but type on their Blackberries with abandon; where certain Oscar-winning stars insist their publicists run out and get them free jeans, televisions, and iPods; and where a studio really will pay top dollar for a laughable movie about a pimp's struggle to become a rap star. (This would be the John Singleton-produced Hustle & Flow, for which Paramount and its MTV division inexplicably paid $9 million.)"
"Rarely is the tension between art and industry more naked than it is at the Sundance Film Festival," Manohla Dargis writes in The New York Times. "Hustle & Flow is rubbish. But it is precisely the kind of rubbish movie executives seek at Sundance, hoping that the film's beats, pimp hero, and putative exoticism will attract young audiences."
MTV News -- clearly pimping the most marketable aspect of the parent company's hot new property -- refers to Hustle & Flow as Ludacris' Hustle & Flow, boosting a supporting player to above-the-title star. Conversely, Web sites and news sources focusing on the business of Hollywood have treated Brewer as a bit player, claiming that Hustle & Flow is a triumph for producer John Singleton and for Paramount.
So what's the true skinny on Hustle & Flow? Even when all the critics have said their bit, the world may never know. Until Brewer finally makes a film for what the average film buff thinks a film should cost and releases it to little fanfare, his films will suffer from the condition ascribed to Old Flat Top in the Beatles song "Come Together." They've got to be good-looking because they're so hard to see. Perhaps the Defamer, a snarky entertainment webzine, said it best in a photo caption:
"Golden boys Terrence Howard (star) and Craig Brewer (director) are interviewed by Alan Cumming. We're a little saddened to think that in two years or so, Brewer will likely direct Rush Hour 4." n