Define 'bizarre' in whatever way you like, and you'll want to include Spike Lee's new film "Bamboozled" somewhere near the top. He's conceived a floundering TV network that badly -- very badly -- needs a new hit show. Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), the token black writer for the network, a Harvard graduate who hates both his job and himself for turning out conventional pap, comes up with a show idea that he's convinced will get him fired and let him recover whatever integrity he still may have, someplace deep down inside.
The idea is to put two black street performers (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson) who dance and rap for quarters in front of the network offices, into a primetime blackface minstrel show where they will tell coon jokes, dance, sing patter songs, and generally acquit themselves like black versions of the (white) Amos & Andy radio show of the nineteen thirties. And they will do it in burnt-cork-and-bright-lipstick makeup. And so will their supporting cast. It's a horrifying idea.
But when Delacroix pitches it to his boss (Michael Rapaport in a dead-on turn as network programming chief), yes, the show gets greenlighted and goes on the air. Then, if you're not already ahead of me, it becomes the great popular hit. Studio audiences, white and black, show up in blackface. You expect to hear people all over the country, a la "Network," opening their windows and shouting "Mantan, Who's gwine feed de hogs?"
Delacroix gets raises, chokes down his conscience. His assistant and onetime girlfriend Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith) is disgusted. And so on, until the predictable explosion when conscience and practicality clash.
So there you have the essence of bizarre; but the larger question is whether it makes a good film, and the answer is that it makes a terrible film. Why terrible? First, and probably second and third as well, is that it is not at all funny. Nothing is funny. No funny jokes, no witty performances, no possibility of seeing through the very visible and symbolic rape of black culture that is a minstrel show and into something, anything, worthwhile. Even Savion Glover, the greatest tap dancer of our age, does slow, offhand steps that go nowhere and leave us cold. And Damon Wayans, a brilliant comic, has chosen or been given a disastrous, fake, embarrassingly bad pseudo-Harvard accent that no one in the real world has ever heard, much less spoken, before.
All of which makes for an atrociously bad film. But we must remember that it was made by perhaps our greatest American filmmaker, Spike Lee, and so it is bad in ways that only a great filmmaker can fail. It fails not by attempting too little but by attempting too much; by reaching too high, rather than slinking too low. Lee tried to do something far beyond his, or perhaps anyone's, ability, and he's failed. But so what? He's still with us, he's still making films, and we anxiously await his next one.