Mooned over at the Academy Awards a year ago, director Craig Brewer's "Hustle & Flow" was a very conventional and sentimental rags-to-riches fantasy. But at least it was coherent. Brewer also wrote and directed his follow-up, "Black Snake Moan," which is not so lucid. For its central premise it would have us believe that a sane man would chain a half-naked woman to his radiator in order to save her from sex.
Laughable clichés and preposterous coincidences accumulate like flies on a manure pile as this Southern Gothic take on "Pygmalion" unfolds. That Christina Ricci's Rae yearns for sex with multiple partners is deemed a sickness that the recently divorced Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) decides to cure with some powerful doses of "yassums." Literally overcome with a fever, Rae shivers on Laz's couch until he drops her overheated body into a tub of ice water. Hard lessons are talked about briefly before a lengthy meal of home-cooked vittles. Later, to ensure the demon is gone for good, Laz performs one last exorcism by blues guitar to the accompaniment of a good ol' thunderstorm.
As far as I could tell, Brewer meant none of this as a joke, but it's difficult to see what he did mean. There are nuggets of commonsense-sounding stuff muttered here and there, but it doesn't add up to much. Some fairly average advice about heaven is discussed, and of course Brewer had to come up with a third-act reason that Rae's boyfriend, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), would stick around after all her trampy behavior. Seems she calms him whenever he gets a panic attack. Cry me a river.
Between the expected media-frothing over the lurid subject matter (Ricci appears on movie posters slithering around in next to nothing and in the movie wears even less) and the film's own preaching, the 800-pound gorilla in the bedroom has been avoided in most reports. If you see the movie, try during the speechifying about decency not to overlook that in most scenes the camera is centered squarely on Ricci's crotch. Close your eyes and "Black Snake Moan" is all about chastity and respect. Open them and it's obvious the Hollywood adage that sex and exploitation sell is still true. (R) 116 min. ** S