Most movies that deal with drug dealing, violent retribution, and organized crime in a major American city try to achieve a sense of gritty realism, and for the most part that’s what director Sheldon Candis is shooting for with his second feature film, LUV. However, at the same time that he wants us to believe in the story he’s putting on the screen, he’s also using his abilities and those of a cast of gifted actors in the service of a tale that’s wildly implausible. Do you believe that an ordinary 11-year-old boy can become a criminal mastermind in the space of 24 hours? Well, if you don’t, then you’re going to have a hard time swallowing what LUV tries to serve up.
In the movie, Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.) is a sixth grader living with his grandmother (Lonette McKee) and his uncle Vincent (Common) in Baltimore. Woody’s mother is currently living in North Carolina and dealing with some personal problems that the family prefer not to discuss, and while Woody misses her and wants to visit her, no one knows when that will happen. Vincent is the man of the house, at least for the moment, and Woody clearly admires his cool confidence and street smarts. One morning, Vincent is taking Woody to school when he impulsively decides to let the youngster play hooky as he shows him how a man tends to his business. As it happens, Vincent is not an ordinary white-collar worker; he was recently released after spending eight years behind bars for selling drugs, and while he plans to go straight and open a restaurant, he’s still in touch with his old criminal associates, including Cofield (Charles S. Dutton), who is helping him get his business off the ground. Despite Cofield’s assistance with some well-falsified documents, Vincent discovers he’ll have to pay off a defaulted loan of $22,000 before the bank will give him another loan for the building he wants, so he turns to his former underworld boss Mr. Fish (Dennis Haysbert) to raise the cash. Mr. Fish offers to cut Vincent in on some money if he’ll make a few deliveries, and arranges a meeting later in the day. In between stops, Vincent gives Woody pointers on life in the adult world -- how to dress, the right way to shake someone’s hand, how to address a stranger, even how to drive a car and shoot a gun. When Mr. Fish’s arrangement is revealed as a set up, Vincent finds himself in deep trouble he isn’t sure how to handle, and it falls to Woody to help his uncle survive Mr. Fish’s scheme and come out ahead.
LUV reveals that director Sheldon Candis does a few things very, very well, and one of them is working with his actors. The movie is filled with outstanding performances, with rapper Common commanding the screen as Vincent and Michael Rainey Jr. melding a child’s sense of wonder with a young man’s forced but determined swagger as young Woody. (Rainey Jr. also interacts easily with his older co-star). And Candis gets superb work from three veteran actors: Dennis Haysbert is excellent in a change-of-pace role as the cool but villainous Mr. Fish, Danny Glover easily balances menace and good cheer as Mr. Fish’s brother and partner in crime, and Charles S. Dutton is low-key but authentic as Cofield.
Candis also does a splendid job of capturing the look and feel of Baltimore (with a valuable assist from cinematographer Gavin Kelly and production designer Alex Brook Lynn), and the story moves along with brisk confidence and skill. However, Candis and his screenwriting collaborator Justin Wilson manage to sabotage nearly everything that works in LUV by asking us to believe that Woody is a more capable criminal that his uncle or his mentors by the end of the day. Woody is played as a bright but shy kid in the early reels of the film; Candis struggles to convince us that merely several hours later, that same boy can accurately fire a pistol, confidently drive a car when he can barely see over the dashboard, face down a gang of heavily armed street thugs, and emerge unscathed in a Mexican standoff, and the movie just cannot overcome the absurdity of it all, or the fact Candis and Wilson so clearly expect us to swallow it. In many respects, allowing Woody to be our guide in LUV is an interesting and novel approach, and if Candis had made the kid more of an observer and less of an underworld prodigy, the gambit might have worked. As it is, LUV is a promising effort that shoots itself in the foot by asking viewers to suspend too much disbelief, and though Sheldon Candis has plenty of upside as a director -- enough so that there are moments when LUV works in spite of its premise -- next time he’s urged to either come up with a more engaging fantasy or a more realistic take on the dirty deeds of the underground economy. leave a comment --Mark Deming