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Brothers keeper

Serious intentions both support and sink The Visit

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Last year Spike Lee used his film Bamboozled, newly released on video, to address, with typical ardor, the issue of African-Americans and the media. Part of Bamboozled's argument is that black Americans not only need media visibility, but the right kind of visibility. For Lee, no images at all may be preferable to ones that are simply clownish or violent; Robert Townsend made a similar case in 1987 with Hollywood Shuffle.

You don't have to endorse all of Bamboozled's points or attack African-American comedy to lament the paucity of dramatic films by and about black people. Jordan Walker-Pearlman's The Visit is exactly the kind of film that's markedly under-represented in current theaters, a family drama that frankly addresses real-world issues, without casting comedians or sitcom actors as humorous relief.

Admirable though The Visit's serious intent may be, often it seems as though serious intent is all it has. Walker-Pearlman's film captures several poignant and rich moments, but runs out of powerful points to make.

We meet Tony Waters (Obba Babatundé) at a party scene during the opening credits, which suggests that he enjoys a cozy and complacent middle-class life. The only imperfect note comes from his brother Alex (Hill Harper), who's spent the past five years incarcerated on a rape conviction. When the brothers meet in jail, Alex asks Tony if he can convince their parents to visit him, though they never have before. We learn that Alex has a fatal illness, and he wants to get right with his family before he dies.

Much of The Visit takes place in penitentiary visiting rooms, both the kind where prisoners and family are separated by a single table, and also the ones with the Plexiglas and the telephones. In the scenes outside the jail, from Tony's home life to family flashbacks, dialogue is kept to a minimum, with long stretches set to such music as a gospel choir singing "Fly Me to the Moon" or a lugubrious solo trumpet that the director favors. With Walker-Pearlman fading in and out of black within scenes, dissolving from one brother's face to another and frequently shooting close-ups on hands, the film maintains a contemplative, mournful tone throughout.

It can be distracting for any film or TV series when actors closely associated with specific roles are cast against type, and Alex's parents are played by Billy Dee Williams, one of cinema's coolest customers, and Marla Gibbs, who's best known as the wisecracking housekeeper Florence from "The Jeffersons." But Gibbs plays the mother with sincerity and tenderness, and Williams proves remarkably effective as the sarcastic, disapproving father. As the paterfamilias, he scolds Alex for his youthful drug addiction and criminal peer group and shows no sympathy for people suffering from the "self-inflicted" disease of AIDS: "Sickle cell anemia, that hurts."

Alex also has meetings with a prison psychologist (a placid Phylicia Rashad) and has a reunion with childhood friend Felicia (Rae Dawn Chong), whose story is even more lurid than his own. A former crack addict, she's on probation for killing the father who molested her, yet by ministering to Alex she helps him find peace in himself.

The Visit's screenplay (by Walker-Pearlman) is based on Kosmond Russell's play of the same name, yet the dialogue, especially in Rae Dawn Chong's scenes, has an improvised sound, which may be deliberate yet is a mixed blessing. Improvised dialogue, as Scorsese movies often show, can sound natural and off the cuff, but if captured improperly can rely on repetition and the stating and restating of the obvious.

The script's strongest elements involve the details of the judicial system, from the visitor's room photographer who charges $3 a picture to the extended scene with Alex's parole board (which includes Talia Shire and David Clennon). Near the end of the film a tough prison guard turns improbably misty-eyed, but The Visit otherwise offers a sober, credible view of the prison bureaucracy. Kirk Acevedo of "Oz" has a cameo appearance, but The Visit's tone is far more level-headed than HBO's prison drama.

But many of the film's devices feel like padding. After most visits, Alex dreams his friends and family are in his prison cell with him. In one dream, he sees himself playing kid's games with his brother; in another, he dances with his mother. It's meant to be touching, but the music and set-up seems a little too "romantic" for comfort. The film's climax, with a soaring shot over the prison roof, is so drawn-out it diminishes its point about the soul's freedom and the body's confinement.

For all of The Visit's flashback scenes, we never see Alex during his drug-using, criminal days, and as he asserts his innocence of the rape charge, it's up to the audience to decide if he's guilty or not. The film urges us to accept him as the reformed man he's become, but without seeing his past, we have no way of assessing the extent of his supposed redemption. As in the rest of the high-minded but muted movie, The Visit's restraint proves both its Achilles heel and its cardinal virtue.

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