American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues" is about a jazzman, but it's not really about jazz -- it's about work, about being so wrapped up in your career that you don't have space for relationships and you can't see where you're headed. It's a less passionate and angry film than Lee's previous work, "Do the Right Thing," and less inspired, too. It's his fourth feature but suffers a little from the "second-novel syndrome," the pressure on an artist to follow up a great triumph. But it's a logical film to come at this point in Lee's career, since it's about the time and career pressures on a young artist.
The movie stars Denzel Washington as a trumpet player with the evocative name of Bleek. He leads a successful jazz group, but sometimes seems distracted and unhappy, maybe because he never really wanted to be a musician, maybe because he hasn't grown up enough to find himself. The movie gives us some insights into those possibilities in a prologue that shows Bleek as a young boy, growing up on a middle-class Brooklyn street, being forced by his mother to practice his trumpet while the neighborhood kids stand on the sidewalk and taunt him because he can't come out and play softball. "Let the boy be a boy," Bleek's father says, but the mother will have none of it. There won't be any softball until he finishes his scales.
We flash forward to Bleek as a successful jazzman. As played by Washington, he is handsome, assured, and a dedicated ladies' man. There are two women in his life: Clarke Bentancourt (Cynda Williams), as sleek as her name, a seductive songstress; and Indigo Downes (Joie Lee), sometimes as blue as her name, less glamorous but steadier and more emotionally healthy. Bleek desires both of them and has enough time for neither, and eventually gets himself into one of those situations where they both show up at the night club on the same evening wearing the same red dresses -- identical gifts from Bleek.
The band is on the brink of breaking out big, but needs better leadership than it gets from Bleek and his childhood friend and manager, Giant (Spike Lee). Giant is a compulsive gambler who is hopelessly incompetent to guide anyone's career, but through some sort of perverse logic Bleek is loyal to him instead of to the friends who would really help him. That leads into physical and professional tragedy.