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NEW YORK — A cautionary tale about the perils of premature athletic fame, Joshua and Benny Safdie’s Lenny Cooke follows a lauded high school basketballer as he decides whether to go to college or enter the NBA draft. Basketball fans who already know Cooke failed to make the cut will learn little here; viewers hoping for broader insights will find even less.
When we meet him in 2001, Lenny Cooke is ranked the #1 high school player in a crop including LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire. We watch as he tours an ESPN interviewer through the Bushwick, Brooklyn blocks he grew up on — he’s now living in New Jersey with Debbie Bortner, a wealthy guardian hoping to steer him toward smart choices — discussing where he’ll build a gym and movie theater when he has NBA millions to bring back to the ‘hood. Back in New Jersey, he and his friends critique the picks in the 2001 draft, which makes high schooler Kwame Brown an instant millionaire.
Cooke has one year to decide whether to join that draft himself, and while he refers to the choice from time to time, the filmmakers don’t get him to talk much about the pros and cons. Adults around him are a little more forthcoming, fretting over the decisions thrust on men so young — one compares buying an unproven player for a few million dollars to slavery. But when Cooke leaves his benefactor’s home, signs with a sports agent, and spends the following months working out instead of playing organized sports, the move is a mystery to us.
Press materials note of all the distractions Cooke faced during his prime — appearing in rap videos, getting paid to play ball, going to clubs — but these elements are almost entirely absent in the film, with the exception of a couple of unexplained scenes at a Las Vegas tournament. Only in the last half hour do we hear (long after the fact) anything about the money and gifts he was plied with. Instead we see the expectant teen attending basketball camps, where he’d rather complain than do drills and finds it difficult to get up on time.
When Cooke enters the draft and isn’t chosen at all, much less in the first round, we see a long line of names being announced but get no shot of Lenny’s reaction. Instead of spending time with him through the following decade, the movie offers only a montage — crummy video clips of games in nearly empty stadiums, where Cooke played for an assortment of podunk leagues.
The Safdies return to Cooke as he turns 30 — a fat, unwed father to multiple kids, unemployed. Devoting an unkind amount of screen time to his drunkenness and self-pity, the film seems to be shooting for a Raging Bull level of tragedy. But while a composited scene, in which has-been Lenny lectures his younger self about work ethic and wisdom, has an undeniable poignancy, actual tragedy remains far beyond the film’s grasp — as does any illumination beyond the unsurprising suggestion that Cooke just didn’t want success as much as peers like LeBron James.
Production Company: Shop Korn Productions
Directors: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Producer: Adam Shopkorn
Executive producer: Joakim Noah
Director of photography: Josh Safdie
Editor: Benny Safdie
Sales: Jessica Lacy, ICM
No rating, 90 minutes
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