The veneer of credibility is no substitute for the real thing, yet it's all we're offered in "Slam," a straining-to-be-gritty study in urban poetry that collapses like a misplaced metaphor when it's subjected to the slightest scrutiny.
Pushing his coffeehouse persona as a soulful martyr of the streets as far as it can go, wordsmith Saul Williams takes on the role of Ray Joshua, a directionless Washington, D.C., urchin who brightens his neighbors' days with dope rhymes while dealing them nickel bags of pot for petty cash. His low-expectations lifestyle is interrupted by a gang shooting that leaves a friend crippled and gets Ray thrown in jail for holding a small quantity of chronic at the scene of a crime. Pumped into the penal system, he's forced to confront the self-destruction that lays at the core of his and his friends' day-to-day existence, but he's also allowed to tap into the underexploited gift for artistic expression that may be his ticket out.
For all of its purposeful immersion in the trappings of ghetto life, "Slam" seems to exist in a never-never-land of PC fantasy-making. One well-timed work yard soliloquy is all it takes for Ray to smooth the tensions between his warring cellmates, and the reverberations of his extremely minor act even set his homies on the outside on the short road to an easy peace. Lauren (Sonja Sohn), a foxy English teacher, appears in a skimpy tank top and wrap skirt to lead a class of sex-starved cons in a group poetry reading, capping the session by dispensing bear hugs to all ... and without a guard in sight.
Telling a believable story seems to be beyond director Marc Levin's abilities; he's too busy trying (and frequently failing) to keep the action in focus and properly lit. Paul Devlin's documentary "SlamNation," which covers similar thematic ground and employs much of the same cast, is actually a far superior narrative and builds to a more satisfactory conclusion. When Ray takes the mike at a slam hosted by Lauren, the patron saint/muse with whom he's become romantically involved, the drama is so artificial that one half expects him to begin his remarks with the words, "Hello, everyone. This is Mrs. Norman Main."
Every director benefits from the occasional learning experience, and Levin comes out of "Slam" with at least one valuable lesson: Don't let poets act! Given free reign to do "serious" work, Williams and crew inflate their already-overheated performance styles into the hammy stratosphere. At a recent screening, a racially mixed audience of college students exploded in laughter at a climactic argument between Ray and Lauren, rightfully identifying it as a ludicrous showcase of silent-movie histrionics.
Watching Williams bug his eyes and chew the scenery like a dreadlocked Nicholson, who could blame them? This kind of self-conscious overemoting can only lead in two directions: One is to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the other to spontaneous combustion. Either way, you aren't going back to the 'hood any time soon.