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Movie Review: Talk to Me
Starting today, audiences in Los Angeles can take their first worthwhile break from the summer blockbuster madness with one of the few award-worthy pics released so far this year (other than Ratatouille). First, a disclaimer. Do not let the trailers for Talk to Me, the new biopic starring the always excellent Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor, mislead you. This is not a film about the civil rights movement, or race in America. Those who are expecting to be preached to or to learn some profound lesson about racial injustice had best look somewhere else.
This film is none of that, and yet is so much more. Because after stripping away all of the Afro wigs and wild period outfits, Talk to Me is at its heart a love story. No, not between Cheadle's version of flamboyant 1960s radio personality Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene and his ex-stripper girlfriend (played with heart and skill by Taraji P. Henson). Nope, this is a brotherly love story between two men, Greene and his friend/manager/producer Dewey Hughes (played by Ejiofor). Seriously, I haven't seen this much hetero man-love in a movie since Legends of the Fall (raise your hand if the scene with Anthony Hopkins and the chalkboard made you cry). And that's a good thing, because this multi-layered exploration of the complex relationship between these two men produces one of the most enjoyable films of the summer that doesn't involve blowing shit up.
Most people raised outside of Washington, DC, have probably never heard of Greene. An ex-con, he became one of the most outrageous of the many urban radio personalities of the 1960s and 1970s. However, unlike his contemporaries, Greene parlayed his on-air success into a career as a television personality and stand-up comedian. This was due in large part to the behind the scenes hustling of his friend and mentor, Hughes.
The fact that Greene's career was at its apex during the most tumultuous moments of the civil rights era is what gives the early impression that this is a film about racial struggle. But the only struggle going on is the struggle of wills between Greene and Hughes, two men from roughly the same part of town who have taken two very different paths in their lives. Ejiofor is proving to be just as much of a scene chewing thespian as Cheadle, and despite his understated nature as the buttoned down and often uptight Hughes, is an equally memorable presence on the screen.
The film is not without its problems, including some very predictable plot turns, but the game performances of the cast keep these predictable moments from being too annoying, even though you can see them coming a mile away.
It's also no small irony that this unique tale of male bonding comes from a female director, Kasi Lemmons, in her third and nearly best directorial effort (her 1997 debut film Eve's Bayou is only slightly superior). If this film had been released in the Fall, it would likely garner serious Academy Award consideration, for leads Cheadle and Ejiofor, and possibly even for Henson's inspired performance. By releasing it in the heart of the summer, Focus is taking a risk that could result in this great little movie being lost in the shuffle. Do yourself a favor and stop this from happening by buying a ticket. The big transforming robots will still be there when you return.