Spinning Into Butter -- Film Review

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Racial politics have provided excellent fodder for material in the hands of gifted cinematic provocateurs like Spike Lee, but the same issues fall mighty flat in "Spinning Into Butter," the film adaptation of the award-winning play by Rebecca Gilman.

What seemed sharp and pointed onstage comes across pedantically in the film, which treats its subject with a clumsy heavy-handedness. The presence of Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead role will provide some momentary theatrical interest before the film makes its quick journey to DVD.

The deglammed star is quite effective as Sarah Daniels, the dean of students at an upscale private college in Vermont. The sort of self-conscious liberal who trips all over herself hewing to political correctness, Sarah finds herself in the thick of things when a black student becomes the victim of harassment, including racially charged notes and a noose hanging outside his door.

The school's president (James Rebhorn) and Sarah's fellow deans (Beau Bridges, Miranda Richardson) naturally are aghast and desperate to solve the issue internally by hosting a "forum on race." Unfortunately, their hopes are derailed by the arrival of an ambitious black news reporter (Mykelti Williamson) who breaks the story and begins a friendship with Sarah in the process.

The screenplay, co-written by the playwright and Doug Atchison, admirably attempts to provide complexity to the proceedings via such elements as Sarah's confession about the racist attitudes she developed while working at an inner-city high school and a surprise revelation about the identity of the black student's tormentor.

But too much of the dialogue comes across as stilted recitations of familiar arguments, with the one-dimensional supporting characters behaving in strictly schematic fashion.

Making his big-screen debut, theater director Mark Brokaw tends to emphasize the melodramatic aspects of the material, with unfortunate results. Eventually, "Spinning Into Butter," for all its laudable intentions, ends up spinning wildly off course.

Opens: Friday, March 27 (Screen Media Films)