by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & Talk to Me & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n Talk to Me, Don Cheadle's performance outshines the movie. In the way Cheadle's Petey Greene talks his way out of prison and into a job at a Washington, D.C., radio station, the film relies too much on coincidence and contrivance. But as a '60s deejay with a giant Afro and an ego to match, Cheadle inhabits his character. When he hustles (and is hustled) at the pool hall, his eyes seize on his life's main chance while simultaneously registering the possibility of defeat. Vulnerable when he's drunk, cocky when he's blowing smoke (literally), heartfelt and chastened when the movie's second-act tragedy impinges on his own success, Cheadle shows us how a staccato-chattering firebrand can grab opportunities and then become fearful when they might actually turn into success. He's borrowing from his Devil in a Blue Dress and Boogie Nights palette, sure, but the distance between this performance and Cheadle's heroic French-African manager in Hotel Rwanda is the measure of accomplished acting. The Petey Greene role is a jive-talkin' strut that just might carry Cheadle to an Oscar nomination.
Reviews of Talk to Me have been regularly citing "Howard Stern" and "first shock-jock," which is a distortion. Stern titillates, nudging listeners (and viewers) into their fetishistic fantasy lands. Greene, in contrast -- and as he was forever reminding his audience -- kept "keeping it real." A con man and a drunk, sure, but a quick learner, too -- portrayed by Cheadle as a fast-talkin', sizer-upper of others who intuits the psychology of a situation and then tells it like it is. Ain't no other way.
Greene gets to anoint D.C. as "P Town" because he outmaneuvers the "Oreo" program manager, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the fussbudget station owner (Martin Sheen). With partial success (because of some sentimentality and the continual focus on Cheadle's character), Talk to Me tries to convince us of a Petey/Dewey symbiosis, that they effected mutual change on each other. But director Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou) bends to the biopic tropes of the manufactured crisis, of street smarts outperforming the Establishment's book-learning, of the outpouring of affection that comes too late after self-defeat. Yet she also quickens the pace with match cuts: When Ejiofor's and Cheadle's heads hit their nice suburban and prison-issue pillows, differences in lifestyle and status are nicely sketched.
As the take-no-crap girlfriend, Taraji P. Henson -- her butt sashaying in a micro-mini, her Afro towering over hoop earrings -- conveys the kind of steely stridency anyone would need to tolerate a con man like Petey Greene.
It's fashionable to shudder at the couture excesses of the '60s. But for a Black Power era, it was the perfect complement: After centuries of humiliation, now had come the time for African-Americans to display their platform heels and assert themselves. When Cheadle, then, strolls into the radio station in red velvet bell-bottoms, a paisley scarf, no shirt and mile-wide lapels, I wanted to leap up and give him the kind of soul shake that only a white boy from Orange County can. Keep talkin' to me like that, man. Talk to all of us. (One night only, Thursday, Aug. 16, at AMC. Rated R)