NEW YORK — AS the current reissue of ``Citizen Kane'' reminds us, it can be difficult when a masterpiece appears too early in a young filmmaker's career - since the filmmaker's later works are likely to be judged against this unusually high standard, and found wanting. The reasons for Orson Welles's troubles with Hollywood are more complex than this suggests, and there are also many reasons why Spike Lee has earned less praise for ``Mo' Better Blues'' and his new ``Jungle Fever'' than he received for ``Do the Right Thing,'' his astonishing comedy-drama of two years ago.
But it's a fact that a stunning achievement like ``Do the Right Thing'' is a difficult act to follow, and that subsequent Lee pictures - which would surely have been hailed as ``brilliantly promising'' and ``heralding a major career'' if they'd arrived first - have been greeted a bit more grudgingly than they deserve to be.
While it's true that ``Jungle Fever'' is less assured and ultimately less successful than ``Do the Right Thing,'' it's still a film of great ambition and accomplishment.
Each of the features Mr. Lee has written and directed revolves around a couple of carefully chosen themes. These can be easily listed: ``She's Gotta Have It,'' black womanhood and sexuality; ``School Daze,'' color and class divisions within the African-American community; ``Do the Right Thing,'' urban tensions and black-white relations; ``Mo' Better Blues,'' black family life and artistic aspirations.
The new ``Jungle Fever'' deals with interracial romance, a subject virtually absent from mainstream American films, and also with drug abuse in the innercity ghetto, which Lee has been criticized for dodging in the past. It also probes ethnicity and the dynamics of family life, and returns to the highly charged topic of color consciousness among blacks themselves.
While this is a great deal of material for a single film to explore, ``Do the Right Thing'' tackled just as much - between its main themes and various subtexts - with triumphant results. That movie was structured as an ingenious mosaic, however, with each component helping to illuminate all the others. ``Jungle Fever'' is more of a patchwork, with seams that are all too visible at times. This is why it must be counted a lesser achievement than its great predecessor, despite its own considerable merits.
The main characters of ``Jungle Fever'' are Flipper and Angela, a black man and an Italian-American woman who meet at the office where they work - he's an architect, she's a ``temp'' secretary - and plunge into a love affair. It's an ill-considered romance. He already has a wife, a small daughter, and a contented home life; she comes from a tradition-bound and male-dominated family that would be shocked if she revealed that her new boyfriend was black. Other complications soon flare into the situation a s well, such as the explosive response of Flipper's wife when she learns of his romance, which calls up recollections of the agony she went through as a youngster when other blacks derided her because of her light skin.
Although the main concern of ``Jungle Fever'' is clearly its interracial love story, Lee seems to lose interest in this during stretches of the film, and never probes its inner workings - its motivations, its rationalizations, the conflicting emotions it raises in the lovers - as deeply as one might wish. Instead he digresses to other story lines that are often so rich as to deserve films of their own.
The subplots are not equally well handled, however. The chronicle of Flipper's drug-abusing brother - played by Samuel L. Jackson with an intensity that earned the supporting-actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival last month - is harrowing and absorbing, and culminates in a nightmarish crack-house scene that stands with the best set-pieces Lee has ever created.
By contrast, the scenes with Flipper's father (played by Ossie Davis, who gave ``Do the Right Thing'' some of its most memorable moments) are badly overdone, filmed in an overpunctuated style that needlessly damages the impact of the performances and the points that Lee evidently wants to make.
Even some of the movie's most effective moments are diminished by being stitched too hastily onto the rest of the picture. There's a particularly striking scene, for instance, in which Flipper's wife joins a number of other women in sharply criticizing the state of relations between men and women of different colors. Although it's a brilliant episode, one can't help feeling it would be even stronger if it didn't stand out so noticeably as what it is - an unrehearsed ``jam session'' that was performed an d filmed with improvisatory techniques not used in the rest of the movie.
Such weaknesses aside, ``Jungle Fever'' remains the most thoughtful, provocative, and deeply felt statement on race problems and gender relations to arrive on screen in a very long time - and the funniest and most entertaining to boot. It's also good to see Lee now working more conscientiously to understand his female characters as thoroughly as his males, and to confront the drug scourge that has become one of the most urgent problems facing inner cities.
Marvelous performances by Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, and the amazing John Turturro round out the film, which reconfirms Lee as one of the most important and inventive young voices in world cinema today.
Rated R: Contains vulgar language, drug use, and sexual situations.