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Published: Friday, 2/27/2004

Pushing the envelope: Chappelle

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

You wouldn't expect it of any comedian - certainly not of one who reads his hate mail on the promotional spots for his television show.

You wouldn't expect it, and yet Dave Chappelle, long and thin, with the laid-back sleepiness of a man stepping off a cross-country bus, lives on a 65-acre farm in southwest Ohio, not far from where his father taught at nearby Antioch College in Yellow Springs. It's between the Midwest and his place in New York City where he's been putting together, with a bruising bit here and a not-so-brilliant one there, one of the bravest (albeit spotty) shows on television, Comedy Central's Chappelle's Show.

Let me give you an example:

Exploding heads.

Generally not very funny.

And yet the funniest time I'd ever seen a man's head explode was the first episode - now available on Chappelle's Show: Season One Uncensored (Paramount, $26.99), a two-disc set of the first 12 episodes, including outtakes, bloopers, and a commentary track from Chappelle.

In that exploding-head skit, Chappelle plays an elderly white supremacist. The catch is he's blind, and black; and because his white supremacist friends see a potential recruiting tool in a black white supremacist, no one tells him he's black. At a KKK rally, Chappelle's black white supremacist yanks off his pointy hood to the shock of the assembled racists, and it blows their minds - one of them quite literally - the thing just pops.

Chappelle's audacity with touchy subjects, and his brains (no pun intended), combine with an anxiousness to test the boundaries of what cable permits.

But it's often not simple provocation. He pushes buttons and television standards with a genuine curiosity for why those buttons and those standards have gone up in the first place. A sketch on MTV's The Real World asks a very good "what if?" of that reality TV standard: What if the casting were inverted and everyone on the show were entirely African-American - except for the one token white guy? Then he goes beyond the premise and it becomes a skit on stereotypes.

And then - a great character piece with a handful of broadly drawn characters who always retain a sliver of recognizability.

Pop culture would rather pretend the racial differences in America have become a faint outline. Chappelle doesn't see the point. He pokes a stick straight into the racial fault line in this country. Then he wiggles it around and steps back and gives a sheepish smile, fascinated by the tension and tiptoeing that goes by without comment.

It's not a small order, and the show isn't nearly up to it. Not yet. Chappelle has more to say about race and America than he knows what to do with it. But the second season just started, and sketches are tightening into little masterpieces. My favorite, so far, featured Charlie Murphy (older brother of Eddie and a regular on the show) telling a story of his bizarre, violent run-ins with singer Rick James, who appears as himself, adding little correctives and comments on the story. Chappelle let them go the entire half hour, building into something increasingly wonderful. Caricature and satire gave way to empathy and an odd friendship, and a one-gag premise became a sketch about accepting people for who they are, as deluded as they may be. Which is not a bad definition of Chappelle's Show itself.

RELIGIOUS AND NOT CONTROVERSIAL, HOW ODD: The Diary of a Country Priest (Criterion, $39.95), Robert Bresson's haunting 1950 picture about a priest and an indifferent congregation, recalls a time when movies could be about religion and play to believers and agnostics alike. As film historian Peter Cowie notes on his insightful commentary, Bresson was himself agnostic - though he's often thought of as a deeply Catholic director. He reduces the script to blank stares and expressive eyes. The very Frenchness of a Bresson movie can turn off some people, but here's one of those films that speaks a universal language: It's about self-sacrifice and faith despite the complete inability to get your message across to anyone. Essential viewing, especially if you've been told that the only film about religion that matters is Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

SECONDHAND LIONS, REVISITED: As far as direct-to-video quickies go, The Lion King 1 1/2 (Buena Vista, $29.99 DVD, $24.99 VHS) may be a quickie designed to milk the last drop of life from a beloved kiddie blockbuster, but it works off a clever idea: It's not a sequel or a prequel, but a retelling of the original Lion King from the perspective of meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa. We're talking a bona fide cartoon Rashomon, with the energy of those old Goofy shorts (but B-grade animation). Most of the original voices return, including Matthew Broderick as Simba.

INVENTIVE EXTRA OF THE WEEK: Go to the Special Features segment of the new DVD of Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (Buena Vista, $29.99). Fast forward through the "Ten Minute Film School" segment; and at the end is "How to Make Cool Home Movies," a brief lesson in sprucing up your private videos using off-the-rack sound-effect CDs and digital-effect programs. It's also a shameless excuse for Rodriguez to show off his kids, but the points are simple and clever enough to get your own children strangely curious about the cost of film school. As for the movie, it's the most tired of the trilogy. The DVD comes with 2-D and 3-D cuts, but the VHS edition ($24.99) is 2-D only.

A DUO OF OVERLOOKED HEAVIES: Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men (Warner, $27.95) and Ron Howard's The Missing (Columbia, $28.95), a fun little con artist film and a brooding grimy western from last fall, share nothing in common but quashed ambition. Of course, there were problems: Scott's cons are as thin as Nicolas Cage's hair, and Howard can't leave grim enough alone and sends Tommy Lee Jones into absurd mystical territories that a smarter movie would have left uncharted. But it's not every day two of Hollywood's A-list rediscover the pleasures of modesty.

AND A DOLLOP OF INDIES: From the reaction it received a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival, you would have expected the bittersweet family drama Pieces of April (MGM, $25.98) to make sushi out of Finding Nemo. Instead it merely drew an Oscar nomination for Patricia Clarkson and proved Toledo's Katie Holmes can hold a movie together on her own. Rent it; you'll like it. Camp (MGM, $29.98), I'm less sure of. Set at summer camp for theater kids, this other Sundance favorite aspires to be show-stopping and infectious, and gets so close to rousing, you'll wish it weren't also overacted and too-familiar. My Life Without Me (Columbia, $24.98) is another uneven bit of earnestness, starring Sarah Polley as a young woman who decides to try everything she ever wanted to try before she dies. She carries a shallow script a long way with just an honest performance.



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