The most impressive thing about Why Do Fools Fall in Love isn’t how well Tina Andrews’s script does with exposition. Not just exposition as it plays out, but how Andrews foreshadows later revelation. The film is and isn’t a biopic of singer Frankie Lymon, focusing instead on his three widows–and is and isn’t a biopic of said widows–and the timeline is confused, but the audience needs to know how to make sense of that timeline before events occur. So Andrews’s initial exposition sets up the film for later development.
And it’s really impressive, but it’s still not the most impressive thing about the film, which is Vivica A. Fox’s performance as one of the widows. Also Larenz Tate is great as Frankie Lymon, but he’s something of an enigma. None of the wives knew they were married to a trigamist while they were married–or even while Lymon was alive (the film takes place about fifteen years after his death… with lots of flashbacks).
But while Fox is wife number one, she didn’t come into the picture until after Tate romanced fellow singer Halle Berry. So Fools introduces Tate as Lymon in the fifties, hops ahead to introduce Fox in the eighties (then Berry and Lela Rochon as the other widows), then jumps back to the fifties so Tate can meet Berry, then forward to the early sixties so he can meet Fox, then forward a bit for him to finally “settle down” with Berry, then forward again for him to woo Rochon. Rochon is a prim and proper Southern school teacher, Berry is the glamorous singer, Fox is an ex-con and habitual criminal whose troubles got worst thanks to Tate.
The film deals with Tate’s success first. Everything with the widows–except the prologue with Berry in the fifties–is after he’s fallen and gotten addicted to heroin. Andrews and director Nava lay the whole narrative out beautifully. They’ve got some dramatic hiccups in the finale, partially because it’s all tied to the court proceedings (with a solid Pamela Reed as the somewhat bemused judge), partially because Tate’s a bastard. Sorry, Lymon’s a bastard. Though Tate’s really good at playing him.
But there aren’t any answers as to his real emotions. The film has at least one big mystery (though, really, it also raises the possibility of more widows–there are a few years unaccounted) because it’s not Tate’s film, it’s the widows’ film. And when it’s Fox’s film, it’s exceptional. It’s really good when it’s Berry’s film and Rochon’s film, but not like when it’s Fox’s. Fox transfixes with her performance. Berry is glamorous and sympathetic, Rochon is sweet and sympathetic, but they’re not transfixing. In fact, they’re both better in their present day old age makeup scenes than in the flashbacks. Because they’re there to support Tate, who’s fantastic, but he’s not so fantastic he can overshadow Fox.
And not just because Fox is taller than him.
Fox’s flashbacks are about her regular person’s encounter with the famous. Berry’s are about the famous. Rochon’s are about the ex-famous. It’s all very different. Fox just has the best part.
All the supporting acting is good, except Paul Mazursky. He gets a pass for most of it, because he’s not essential. When he’s essential, however, he totally flops it. It’s too bad; another of the third act problems.
Most of the direction is fantastic. Nava can do the big scale of the rock and roll flashback and fame culture, he can do the small dramatic scale. The character moments in the film are just as effective as the musical numbers and the musical numbers are outstanding. Tate’s phenomenal in them. The lip-synching and sound editing of the performances are all wonderful.
Great photography from Edward Lachman, editing from Nancy Richardson, production design from Cary White. Nice score from Stephen James Taylor. Great soundtrack.
Fools has an outstanding script, good performances, a couple great ones, and strong direction. It paints itself into a corner with the narrative structure and takes some hits in the third act. But it mostly works out, which is no small feat given how unsympathetic Tate has to become and how sympathetic he has to remain.
Directed by Gregory Nava; written by Tina Andrews; director of photography, Edward Lachman; edited by Nancy Richardson; music by Stephen James Taylor; production designer, Cary White; produced by Paul Hall and Stephen Nemeth; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Larenz Tate (Frankie Lymon), Vivica A. Fox (Elizabeth Waters), Halle Berry (Zola Taylor), Lela Rochon (Emira Eagle), Pamela Reed (Judge Lambrey), David Barry Gray (Peter Markowitz), Clifton Powell (Lawrence Roberts), Lane Smith (Ezra Grahme), Paul Mazursky (Morris Levy), Ben Vereen (Richard Barrett), Miguel A. Núñez Jr. (Young Little Richard), and Little Richard (Little Richard).