SOME artists feel a constant obligation to top themselves, making each enterprise more ambitious than the last. But others take a more sensible approach. As he was finishing the epic ``Malcolm X'' a couple of years ago, Spike Lee let it be known that his next picture would have a very different tone. It would be smaller and more intimate, he said - a personal project with a close-to-home feel.
He kept his word. ``Crooklyn'' is the warmest, most engaging movie of Lee's ever-fascinating career, exploring the rewards and challenges of family life with a good-humored casualness he's never shown before. It's not his best movie - a label still reserved for ``Do the Right Thing,'' his 1989 masterpiece - but it's certainly the most lovable, revealing unexpected new depths in Lee's artistic personality.
The story focuses on the Carmichaels, an African-American family doing its best to live a contented life in a modest Brooklyn brownstone during the 1970s. Carolyn is the hard-pressed mother with five energetic children to handle. Woody is the out-of-work father, a musician whose artistic ideals get in the way of practical matters such as earning a living for his household.
Among the kids, the most irresistible is 10-year-old Troy, who uses her status as the only girl to coax as much special treatment as possible from her sometimes exasperated parents. She's clearly the princess of this little kingdom, and while the movie starts as a tale about all the Carmichaels, it soon makes Troy the central character of its loosely knit narrative - showing her to be as imperfect as she is adorable, prone to such unprincess-like behavior as fighting, nagging, and even shoplifting just for the naughty thrill.
Although most of ``Crooklyn'' is an affectionate look at the Carmichaels in their everyday Brooklyn surroundings, the centerpiece of the movie is a visit to a Southern branch of the family, which takes Troy in when financial hardships break her household apart. Here she copes with a strait-laced aunt and a feisty cousin, learning new lessons about life and growing up a little in the process. In the film's last portion she needs every speck of maturity she's acquired, as her return to Brooklyn coincides with the serious illness of her mother. The end of the story is both bitter and sweet, yet as life-affirming as everything that's come before.
On one level, ``Crooklyn'' works as a colorful chronicle of city life, depicting things as diverse as street-side games, weirded-out neighbors, and the ways children amuse themselves when stoops and sidewalks are their only playgrounds. Avoiding stereotyped visions of inner-city strife, Lee takes special pleasure in such details as the junk foods that provide the Carmichael kids with between-meals sustenance, and the lily-white programs that dominate TV screens in their mostly black neighborhood.
On another level, the movie is an engrossing comedy-drama with uncommon degrees of insight and empathy. These qualities are embedded in the ambling screenplay written by Lee with his sister and brother, Joie Susannah Lee and Cinque Lee, who based the story on their own memories of growing up. Also commendable are the superb performances by Alfre Woodard as Mom, Delroy Lindo as Dad, Zelda Harris as Troy, and an excellent supporting cast.
On yet another level, ``Crooklyn'' is Lee's most inventively cinematic film in years, with a camera that tracks, travels, swoops, and glides into every nook of its Brooklyn surroundings and every cranny of its characters' lives. The most daring visual coup happens during the Southern portion of the story, filmed with a distorting (anamorphic) lens that's deliberately ``wrong'' from a technical standpoint but hilariously right in its ability to convey the cramped, uncomfortable feelings that settle on Troy until she sets foot in Brooklyn again. This is sure to be among the year's most controversial filmmaking maneuvers, but in my view it's a bold and bodacious success.
``Crooklyn'' is a small-scale movie even when not measured against the massive ``Malcolm X'' that preceded it. Unfolding its characters' experiences through a slender story with a meandering structure, it's best watched in a quiet mood geared to small revelations and subtle surprises. On its own intimate terms, it's one of the most winning films on family life to reach the screen in ages.
* ``Crooklyn'' has a PG-13 rating. It contains vulgar language, domestic violence, and drug use.