When contemplating the wonderful world of flops, it’s wise to habitually return to the fortune-cookie wisdom of Elizabethtown, the film that started it all. As Elizabethtown indelibly reminds us, “No true fiasco ever began as a quest for mere adequacy.” No, true fiascos often begin as a quest for greatness. The fiascos that linger in our minds and ricochet through the ages fly too close to the sun and get burnt to a crisp for their arrogance.
As I’ve written before, the same ambition, chutzpah, and admirable willingness to risk looking like a complete jackass in the eyes of an often-unforgiving public that fuel some of the biggest fiascos of all time also drive revered classics. The same mad-prophet ambition that made The Deer Hunter a triumph helped make Heaven’s Gate a career- and studio-killing bomb. The same audacity that made Roberto Benigni think a concentration camp was an awesome setting for a heartwarming family comedy also allowed him to delude himself into thinking the public would buy him as a balding wooden puppet-boy. And the same fuck-the-world-I’m-doing-it-my-way bravery and cavalier disregard for commercial calculation that made Lee Daniels’ Precious (based on the novel Push by Sapphire) an unlikely pop-culture phenomenon similarly helped make the barely released, critically derided Shadowboxer: Not Based On A Novel By Sapphire, Daniels’ 2007 directorial debut, one of the craziest melodramas in recent years. It’s a film so unlikely, I almost wanted to watch it again just to make sure it wasn’t a weird dream.
The mind-boggling miscalculation begins with casting Cuba Gooding Jr.—a likeable, baby-faced actor who’s as eager to please as a golden retriever puppy—as a skilled assassin with ice water in his veins. It might seem counterintuitive, but winning the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Jerry Maguire was probably the worst thing that could have happened to Gooding as a dramatic actor. His spastic, boundlessly energetic Oscar acceptance speech became burned so indelibly in the public imagination that it can be hard to accept him as anything but a variation on his Oscar-winning role. Onstage, Gooding seemed to be accepting in character, which blurred the line separating the actor from the role and made it prohibitively difficult to buy him as anything but a sweet, manic goofball. Accepting lead roles in non-Oscar-winning fare like Boat Trip, Chill Factor, and Daddy Day Camp and playing second fiddle to Michael Jordan in underwear commercials didn’t exactly catapult Gooding onto the A-list of dramatic actors, either.
Yet Shadowboxer has the chutzpah to cast Gooding not just as a moody, introverted, heartless killer, but as an irresistible sex symbol. The film spends more time lingering on his glistening, muscular ass than his proctologist does. My editor Keith and his wife Stevie renamed the ill-fated quasi-Graduate sequel Rumor Has It as Everyone Fucks Costner; in the same spirit, Shadowboxer could just as easily be called Everyone Wants To Fuck Cuba. (Or, if you’d prefer, Two Assassins, A Wife Targeted For Death, And A Baby.)
Over the course of the film, Gooding twice has ecstatic, male-nudity-intensive sex with lover/mother figure/fellow assassin/fellow Oscar-winner (those four always go together) Helen Mirren. He also drives Vanessa Ferlito’s hot-to-trot mom-on-the-run to such delirious erotic heights that she’s moved to masturbate graphically while contemplating Gooding’s hot ass. Macy Gray sexually propositions Gooding within minutes of meeting him, and a male target for assassination is so overjoyed by the sight of Gooding in drag that he lets his guard down, pulls down his pants to make room for Gooding’s magic stick, and gets murdered for his trouble. Gooding is a handsome man, and as Shadowboxer exhaustingly, pantingly, leeringly chronicles, he’s in very good shape, especially where his posterior is concerned. But his long reign as a national punchline drains his performance of any danger or mystery.
Shadowboxer’s plot hinges on Gooding being so irresistibly sexy that Mirren throws caution to the wind and engages in a quasi-incestuous sexual relationship with him after first hooking up with, then killing his abusive father. Now might be a good time to point out that Shadowboxer is a little on the melodramatic side, in the same way Oasis may owe a slight debt to The Beatles.
Mirren, you see, is dying of cancer. In a misguided attempt to cheer her up, Gooding—whose acting is so sleepily restrained here that I imagine he bounced off walls and did miles of cartwheels to expend some of his boundless energy between takes—tells her “It’s just cancer, Rose. It’s just cancer,” which has to be the least reassuring bit of reassurance this side of “You’ll only lose three of your limbs and most of your torso in the operation.”
Mirren’s rapidly approaching date with death awakens her long-dormant maternal streak. When she and Gooding encounter pregnant mob wife Ferlito at the exact moment her water breaks, Mirren decides to call an audible and not kill her. Suddenly filled with a sense of purpose, Mirren springs into action and delivers the baby herself, much to Gooding’s chagrin. That might seem a little sketchy, but most pregnancy manuals do advise expectant mothers to have at least one contract killer on hand during delivery. We later learn that Mirren was once a med student and a would-be revolutionary who got sidetracked from doing good deeds by a few decades of murder-for-hire. She’s a real renaissance woman: half-midwife, half-murderer.
It’s a measure of Shadowboxer’s Dadaist casting that Gooding and Mirren don’t even qualify as the film’s most preposterous couple: That distinction belongs to the once-in-a-lifetime pairing of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a shady doctor and Mo’Nique as his crack-addicted, verbally abusive nurse/lover/benefactor. Gordon-Levitt’s casting can only be attributed to a practical joke played on him by his agent, whom I imagine chuckling to himself on April 1 and telling his gullible client, “Oh yeah, this is the ideal role for you. You’re a baby-faced Jewish kid in his early 20s, so everyone is going to buy you as a sketchy doctor stuck in a dysfunctional relationship with a heavy, crack-smoking, middle-aged African-American woman. The scene where she finds you giving head to another woman in the hospital and yells ‘I put your ass through medical school and this is the thanks I get?’ That’s your Oscar moment right there. Fuck Mysterious Skin, bubbelah. This will be the scene that will establish you as a heavyweight. Heck, you’ll practically be playing yourself.” Oh, did I mention that Mo’Nique’s character is named Precious? Because she is. With apologies to Dave Barry, I am so not making this up.
A reformed, family-minded Mirren whisks Ferlito and her baby away and helps them hide from Stephen Dorff’s vicious crime kingpin. Fans of male nudity will be pleased to know that Dorff’s condom-encased penis makes a special surprise cameo during one of the film’s many, many gratuitous sex scenes.
While Mirren cares for Ferlito and her son, Gooding, whose character remains ambivalent at best about his new makeshift family, has to pay the bills the only way he knows how: by murdering strangers. In this scene, Gooding, who apparently moonlights as an LL Cool J impersonator, chats up target Macy Gray at a bar in preparation for killing her. As the film’s ostensible comic relief, Gray proclaims herself a crazy bitch, orders five drinks at once, propositions Gooding more or less on sight, does the world’s least sexy “sexy” dance, then keels over and dies while frothing at the mouth. Sadly, this still qualifies as Gray’s most dignified performance, on- and offscreen.
In spite of his reservations, Gooding goes along with Mirren’s wishes to fill her last days with meaning and compassionate acts right up until the unforgettable scene where he fucks Mirren in what appears to be a magical forest glowing from within like a Thomas Kinkade painting. Then he experiences flashbacks to his abusive childhood and Mirren killing his father. Ultimately, he kills Mirren with both kindness and a gun, then indulges in a little naked grave-digging.
We then flash forward three years. The once-recalcitrant Gooding is now the picture of domesticity, doting on his adopted son, teaching him how to box, and generally being super-dad. But old ways die hard, and Gooding experiences a spiritual reckoning of his own when, as I mentioned earlier, he goes undercover as a transvestite prostitute and murders a would-be john only to discover an adorable handwritten note from the victim’s 6-year-old son. He apparently had no idea his victims had families before.
Gooding tells the wheelchair-bound, bowtie-wearing elderly man who hires him to perform hits that he’s getting out of the killing business, but he can’t shake his past so easily. When Dorff and his flunkies come calling, Dorff’s own adorable son eventually murders dear old dad, and the cycle begins anew, as the sins of the surrogate and birth father are revisited upon the son.
Shadowboxer is a film of breathtaking audacity and gloriously misplaced conviction. Daniels really seems to believe he’s making a Lynchian masterpiece rich with symbolism and haunting themes instead of a surreal, over-the-top, maddeningly portentous B-movie that condenses a decade’s worth of soap-opera plots into one comically overheated melodrama.
Daniels’ directorial debut is preposterous, insane, utterly and inexplicably unself-conscious, and unencumbered by shame or dignity. If you love bad movies like I love bad movies, it’s also definitely worth seeing, preferably drunk and with a group of smartass friends. It is not, however, boring, safe, or predictable. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it, which is high praise. For better or worse, Daniels is a real auteur willing to take enormous, seemingly foolhardy risks that paid off with his equally melodramatic and intense but far more assured follow-up. I thought Precious was a perversely non-commercial prospect a few years back when I saw it at Sundance; compared to Shadowboxer, though, it’s about as bizarre and daring as a Happy Feet sequel. After making Shadowboxer, anything short of a pro-Nazi, pro-pedophilia snuff film climaxing with the onscreen murder of Tom Hanks would have to look safe and tame by comparison.
Shadowboxer ends with a dedication to Daniels’ Uncle Reggie. Listen closely, and you can almost hear Uncle Reggie whisper, “Thanks, but no thanks” from beyond the grave.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco verging on Secret Success