Filmmaker John Sayles has always moved adroitly among subjects, including, more often than not, politically or culturally charged issues, from the lives of the striking 1920s coal workers in "Matewan" to the march of development in a modern Florida town in "Sunshine State" and race relations in "Lone Star's" border town. Since the early '80s, the penetrating intelligence of his writing has been matched only by his sense of authenticity.
Which is why his latest film, "Honeydripper," structured around the arrival of the first electric guitar in an Alabama town full of the old-fashioned blues, is such a conundrum. It's a highly sympathetic portrait of a community, but there's no sense of authenticity to it, and although it's set in 1950 in the Jim Crowe South, it has the feel of a quaint fable; the kind where half the characters are engaged in cotton picking and the others in guitar picking.
Even more egregious, "Honeydripper" is dull, populated by the kind of tired, stock characters who might have wandered in from a Hallmark Hall of Fame production. Danny Glover plays Tyrone Purvis, the proprietor of a dive called the Honeydripper Lounge in the fictional town of Harmony. He's got money problems, which have him convinced it's time to dump his crooning blues songstress and replace her, at least for one night, with a hotshot guitar player named Guitar Sam.
He also has issues with the local lawman Sheriff Pugh (Stacy Keach). The sheriff either wants to sleep with Tyrone's God-fearing wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton) or have her cook him a fried-chicken sandwich. Or maybe one followed by the other. We're never exactly sure, because although Pugh is recognizably the Man, the true depth of his menace is not thoroughly explored.
The mushy ambiguity of Sheriff Pugh is typical of the film's absence of genuine drama. The camera ping-pongs back and forth between characters, and we listen dutifully to their conversations, waiting to feel engaged, but it never happens. And without that there's nothing to counter the lack of suspense. From the minute we spot the new game in town, a wandering musician named Sonny (sexy young musician Gary Clark Jr.), we know he's going to electrify (literally) the crowd at the Honeydripper with his guitar.
But Sayles takes nearly two meandering hours to get Sonny up there, and Glover, though he's a fine actor, never convinces us it matters all that much whether the Honeydripper is saved or not. The movie rocks out only in its last minutes, making you long for the joyous frivolity of "Idlewild," 2006's Prohibition-era musical. "Honeydripper" is a pleasant enough story, but when Sayles is involved, it is a shock to feel so little.
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STARRING: Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Gay Clark, Jr., Stacy Keaton, Keb' Mo'
DIRECTOR: John Sayles
RATED: PG-13 (brief violence and some suggestive material
NOW PLAYING: Oakland's Grand Lake and S.F.'s Kabuki
RUNNING TIME: 2 hours, 3 minutes