Get on the Bus (Spike Lee)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

Working at a pace that makes Woody Allen seem like Stanley Kubrick -- Get on the Bus is the third feature he's directed in the past 18 months, following last fall's Clockers and this spring's Girl 6 -- Spike Lee continues to make films as if he fully expects that each one will be his last. Fearing, it seems, that he might never get another chance, he routinely tosses every issue and subplot and stylistic device he can think of into the mix, heedless of how each part relates to the whole. The result is invariably wildly incoherent, and Get on the Bus, which veers repeatedly from breezy naturalism to studied didacticism and back again, is no exception. It is, however, easily the funniest and most winningly entertaining film Spike has made since his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing, and the parts of it that work are such a joy to watch that it's easier than usual to forgive the parts that just sit there on the screen looking for a place to hide the shoehorn. Much of the picture's success, I think, is attributable to its simplicity: A group of about 15-20 black men travel by chartered bus from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. to attend 1995's Million Man March. Apart from a few brief interludes at diners and rest stops and such, Spike is confined to the bus throughout (just as he confined himself to a single Brooklyn block in Do the Right Thing), and the restriction helps him to focus, at least with regard to technique -- there are only so many places you can put the camera in a moving vehicle. (One of the characters is a film student toting a Camcorder, which allows Spike to monkey once again with shifting film stocks, but that diversion is thankfully kept to a minimum.) The cross-section of passengers on this bus is ridiculously diverse, of course, but the actors are so remarkable (Andre Braugher, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, and Gabriel Casseus stood out for me, but the entire cast is first-rate), and most of the conversations and quarrels so compelling and/or hilarious (did I mention the improvised musical number?), that I didn't much mind that Reggie Rock Bythewood's script is impossibly contrived. On the other hand, speaking of that "most" back there, I wish he or Spike or a producer -- anyone, really -- had thought to trim or simply remove some of the interminable speeches (poor Charles Dutton has to deliver a long one at the end that's almost as boring and self-righteous as a parental lecture) that plague the film like 12-minute cicadas. Get on the Bus also suffers from Crisis Overload in the final reel, as dramatic events begin to occur in rapid succession; any one of these last-minute plot twists would have been reasonably credible, but together they're borderline laughable. In spite of these flaws, though, I have no qualms whatsoever about recommending the picture; the "Roll Call" sequence alone more than compensates for the occasional oration. I'm looking forward to Spike's next film, which I imagine will be out by Christmas.