Do The Right Thing (1989)

on June 30, 1989 by BOXOFFICE Staff
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Though Spike Lee's films tend to be mixed blessings at best, there are those who wouldn't miss one of them for all the firepower in Beijing. When he's on, Lee cooks like a navy blue car seat in August, spewing monster chunks of pointed, gut-level comedy on subjects that no other filmmaker would even contemplate.
   "Do the Right Thing," his latest, is yet another keg of gunpowder in the Lee cannon -- a violent, unruly stew that awkwardly evokes the likes of "Diner," "Moonstruck," and even "American Graffiti." Set on the hottest day of summer in the predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford- Stuyvesant, it details 24 hours in the lives of the staff, management and clientele of Sal's Famous Pizzeria, a local landmark owned and operated for 20 years by the same likeable white guy (Danny Aiello). His help includes two sons -- the amiable Vito (Richard Edson) and the bitterly and openly racist Pino (John Turturro) -- and a conflicted black delivery man from the neighborhood named Mookie (Lee).
   Cheerful dispositions evaporate in the brain-baking broil when an excitable Bed-Stuy activist named Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) notices that Sal's hilariously homogenous shrine of celebrity glossies on the restaurant walls features only white Italian-Americans like De Niro, Travolta, and Sinatra -- and nary a photo of an African-American. When Buggin Out's proposed boycott of Sal's escalates into violence and senseless police brutality near the film's conclusion, it is Mookie who must arbitrate an ethical balance amid the racial pyrotechnics.
   As with his previous feature -- the much-underrated "School Daze" -- Lee's "Thing" develops twice too many major characters than would seem prudent in the span of a two-hour narrative. The result, inevitably, is a meandering affair that eschews linear storytelling in favor of vignettes tied together in only the loosest way. While the film is seldom boring, its general lack of focus does seem to blunt much of the drama that its final explosive sequence might have engendered. And though he demonstrates a powerful understanding of what makes people tick -- and what ticks people off -- Lee's point (and Mookie's motivation) remains hazy even at the film's conclusion.
   In any case, the piece's unusually dour tone isn't likely to endear itself to summertime moviegoers. At this point in his career, Lee seems close to scoring his first breakthrough hit but, at least in this case, "Right Thing" seems to have come at the wrong time.
Jim Kozak Universal 126 mins.
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