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Call Girls

Girl 6 has slipped into the theaters without the fanfare that ordinarily accompanies a new Spike Lee movie. That may be just as well, because this tart little comedy about a struggling actress who makes ends meet by serving up phone sex has none of Lee's usual in-your-face rhetoric or big-issue glitz. Instead, it quietly addresses quieter concerns. What's real? What's a role? What's real in a modern black woman's role?

If this doesn't sound precisely like Spike Lee territory (his women sometimes get short shrift), he's gotten plenty of help from the gifted playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, the author of such works as The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World and the Obie-winning Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom. Parks's witty, beautifully written screenplay is a perfect partner for what looks like Lee's most joyful directorial effort since Crooklyn, and star Theresa Randle (who appeared in both Jungle Fever and Malcolm X) fizzes the movie up with high comic energy.

That is not to say Girl 6 is wall-to-wall yuks. Even as Parks, Lee and Randle satirize the absurdity of a world in which men dial in their fantasies at $1.95 a minute, they also confront the issue of human identity with deceptive power. "Girl 6," whose real name we don't learn until the end, is indeed an actress, and when she unexpectedly loses herself in the part of "Lovely," the long-distance courtesan, the film suddenly has something to say about gender roles, racial roles (all the "girls" at the agency are to "play white" unless otherwise requested) and the sometimes uncertain distinction between self and character. There's a touch of Pirandello in all this (didn't he call his masterwork Six Characters in Search of an Author?), as well as a bracing hit of African-American reality. While we're laughing at the folly of Girl 6's paying customers (especially "Regular Bob," who calls up from his Thunderbird, rolling across the desert), we see that her very soul is in danger of slipping away in a wash of daydreams that include Dorothy Dandridge, TV's Thelma Jefferson, and the tricky power of her new job/role. Then her life appears to be threatened.

Hear that echo? Yes, it resonates from Lee's rough but exciting first film, 1986's She's Gotta Have It, wherein the young heroine was faced with three suitors. Girl 6 has to make important choices, too, and you can't help rooting for this smart, willing striver as she struggles on from one life to another, wiser and stronger.

The supporting cast includes Isaiah Washington as Girl 6's ex-husband, a principled shoplifter who steals only what he eats and still aches for her, and Debi Mazar as her best friend and confidante in the phone-sex game. Spike Lee has no shortage of famous friends these days, so he also revs up the proceedings with some high-profile cameos: Quentin Tarantino pops in as, well, as a short-tempered movie director who demands that our heroine remove her top in an audition; Madonna's the proprietor of a sex club; model Naomi Campbell is one of the phone girls; Halle Berry's a glittering movie star in one of Girl 6's fantasies.

Here is some good, solid, funny Spike Lee, occasionally marred by excess and exaggeration, but far more substantial than it first appears. It may be the quietest Lee film in years, but it speaks volumes.--Gallo

Girl 6.
SCreenplay by Susan-Lori Parks. Directed by Spike Lee. With Theresa Randle, Isaiah Washington, Spike Lee and Debi Mazar.

 
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