It’s become de rigueur, mostly among white commentators, to compare anything that involves African-American crime in urban environs to The Wire. Annoying it may be, if understandable: The show rather says it all – or almost all – and besides, for many, it’s one of their only frames of reference to understanding how American cities (not quite) function. The new LUV turns making the connection into a dare: Not only is Baltimore the setting, and not only is a decent chunk of the cast Wire alum, but the film functions in part to summarize some of the show’s points while offering some of the same pleasures.
Writer-director Sheldon Candis couches his apparent appropriations into a familiar/convenient day-in-the-life structure. Eleven-year-old Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.) spends an “average” weekday with his uncle Vincent (Common), who, rather than drive him to school, takes him around on his day’s errands, ostensibly to show him what it means to be a man. Vincent’s past (and present) aren’t immediately apparent, but turns out he’s of the Stringer Bell variety: an ex-con trying to start a restaurant-cum-club with a foot still in the drug trade.
What follows is not without cliché: This is, of course, Not Just Any Day, while Vincent thinks he’s out but they keep pulling him back in, etc. Neither is it always convincing as drama or even as a David Simon-esque panorama of a failing city. It’s better as a portrait of patriarchal rot, with one masculine figure after another trying to have at Woody’s soul, only to reveal their increasingly apparent innate corruption.
It’s even more worthwhile as an actor’s showcase. The episodic structure has Vincent and Woody journeying from one place to another, where they find one amazing guest star after another: Charles Dutton, Danny Glover, an atypically intimidating Dennis Haysbert. They swing by, nail their scenes, then drift off. As the narrative’s Virgil, taking us from banks and oyster joints to drug dens and alleyways deep in the cut, Common finally delivers the mesmerizing screen performance it seemed he might one day bust out. If the film is partially a con job, the actors distracting us from a mostly effective film’s occasional deficiencies, he is its leader, seducing with the soothing baritone with which he has, at long last, learned to comfortably deliver film dialogue.