Shadowboxer has little shadowboxing, but plenty of weird casting, nudity, and murder 

Shadowboxer has little shadowboxing, but plenty of weird casting, nudity, and murder 

Crimes: 

  • Making a film so preposterous that the casting of baby-faced Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who looks to be about 12 years old) as a doctor and Mo’Nique as his lover/nurse (who is named Precious, strangely enough, the title of the Lee Daniels film that won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress four years later) qualifies as the 13th least-plausible element, just ahead of the equally surreal casting of Helen Mirren as a lover/mother surrogate to traumatized hitman Cuba Gooding Jr.
  • Achieving the pretension of a David Lynch film, the ambition of a Pedro Almodóvar film, and the aesthetic achievement of a super-long Red Shoe Diaries episode 
  • Lingering on Gooding’s muscular posterior so obsessively that by the end of the film audiences will have seen it more than Gooding’s own proctologist 
  • Squandering a one-of-a-kind cast that includes Helen Mirren, Cuba Gooding Jr., Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mo’Nique, Macy Gray, and Stephen Dorff

Defenders: Director Lee Daniels and star Cuba Gooding Jr. 

Tone of commentary: There is little commenting in the film’s first few minutes: It’s as if Daniels and Gooding have too much hushed reverence for their own work to want to contaminate it with something as mundane as backstage chatter. Daniels eventually warms up and makes a startling transformation from awed respect to hysterical gushing, much of it directed towards Gooding, who is praised so extensively and in such overtly sexual terms that he seems a little embarrassed by all the attention. After one characteristically overheated ode to his genius from Daniels, the abashed Oscar-winner demurs, “They’re going to think you said that because we’re sitting here commenting on the film together. That’s what they’re going to think, [that this is] some bullshit.” 

During a scene where Gooding dances sexily for a dying Mirren, Daniels enthuses, “To me, this is your absolute sexiest onscreen ever, Cuba. People may say this because you’re here with me, but I really believe it. White people say, ‘Back it up, granny’ when they see it; and when you see it with a black audience, they say, ‘Black it up, granny!’ But this is just, the two of you all here, perfection. It’s erotic, and we don’t show the sex, you know what I mean? It’s just the moment.” 

Shadowboxer is so transparently a breathless valentine to Gooding’s rump that Daniels is essentially forced to defend his choice to prominently feature it in roughly half the scenes by arguing, “I got a lot of flak for the amount of Cuba’s ass in this, and I think that what they don’t understand [is], it’s really not about the ass. It’s just about the moment. It’s just what it is. It’s the way the script was written.”

What went wrong: As the film incontrovertibly conveys, Daniels finds Gooding staggeringly beautiful and highlights his beauty constantly, but still not as much as the director would’ve liked. Early on, Daniels notes that he had to condense a scene of Mirren bathing Gooding into something approaching a containable length; if given his druthers, Daniels would probably still be filming the bath scene. 

Gooding notes with disappointment that Daniels apparently filmed miles of footage of Gooding shadowboxing, his impeccably muscled torso coated in a sheen of sweat; yet only a tiny fraction of the footage shot actually made it into the film. For time purposes, a sequence involving Vanessa Ferlito masturbating furiously after ogling Gooding’s naked ass in the shower was similarly abridged from how it appears in the script.  

Comments on the cast: Daniels spends so much time delivering feverish encomiums to Gooding that he barely gets around to waxing hyperbolic about the rest of the cast. Even when his star disagreed with him, Daniels ended up coming around to Gooding’s way of thinking. Of a crucial costuming decision, Daniels tells Gooding, “About the only thing you were right-on about this movie was when I told you to wear hole-y underwear. I’ll never forget it. You said, “Lee, I’m not wearing hole-y underwear.” And I said I wanted you to wear hole-y underwear because that felt like a statement. Do you remember that? You said, “No way, José,” and fought me on that. And I thought about that, and in hindsight, you were 100 percent, unequivocally right. Was that deep?” 

Daniels goes on explain that he wanted Gooding to wear underwear riddled with holes to indicate that he never evolved emotionally beyond childhood and a state of total dependence, while Gooding thought it would be unrealistic for someone with money to wear clothes that are falling apart. Daniels not only came to agree with Gooding. he posits the resolution of the hole-riddled-underwear debate as an example of the profound collaboration that makes independent cinema great. The director then goes on and on about how amazing Gooding looks with eyeliner on, and is borderline-devastated to discover that Gooding and the makeup woman were constantly taking eyeliner off Gooding’s beautiful, beautiful face. 

During a somber, incredibly brief moment where Gooding mumbles to Mirren that he’d rather not go to Coney Island with her, Daniels remarks, “This is when I fell in love with you, because you completely improv-ed. That was completely improv-ed. You just went off. You had to do start doing your thing. I didn’t know where you were going. Everybody laughed.” Daniels is particularly impressed by a startling transformation Gooding makes in a scene where he dresses up like LL Cool J (Kangol hat included) and picks up Macy Gray as a pretense for getting her alone so he can kill her, shrieking, “Look at you, you’re just grabbing your penis like, ‘What the…?’ It’s just filth! It’s just raunch! It’s just raunch! It’s just ghetto!”

When Gooding comes gunning for a woman he doesn’t know is pregnant, Daniels marvels at the fascinating phenomenon that actors sometimes play different roles: “This is not ‘Show me the money!’ This guy’s, like, psychotic. He’s coming for this pregnant woman!” 

Inevitable dash of pretension: Gooding unnecessarily highlights the film’s ham-fisted themes when he notes of a sequence where his hitman stumbles upon a pregnant woman (Vanessa Ferlito) going into labor before he can kill her, “I remember reading this moment in the screenplay and going, “Oh my goodness, she’s pregnant. That blew me away, and I was like, I hope you get that same feeling. Then her water breaks, and it’s like, wow, that, to me, sums up the whole motivation for the movie: life, the circle of life.” 

According to the wonderfully melodramatic Daniels, God was looking out for Shadowboxer. Daniels notes unironically of a scene where a nude Gooding buries Mirren’s nude corpse after first making love to her, then killing her, “God gave me rain that day.” “You got all of these people who came together because they read this material and were moved by it and wanted to make a wonderful statement as actors and they all did,” crows Gooding on the wonderful alchemy of the film’s cast. 

Commentary in a nutshell: Daniels is so impressed by Gooding’s preternatural acting ability that it begins to scare him, as he wonders if he’s directing merely one of the greatest actors in human history, or some manner of mindreading actor-god.  During a scene of Gooding, um, driving a car (truly the greatest acting challenge a thespian can face), Daniels raves, “This is when I began to wonder about Cuba because he became at this point a one-take wonder. I told him to drive in a certain way, into that parking lot, and he did it exactly on point, at a certain speed that I wanted, and parked. And I became frightened; it’s a Capricorn thing.” 

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