NEW YORK — It comes as a disappointment that "LUV," a drama about the tragic realities of fathers and sons in unforgiving urban environs, can't measure up to the lyricism of its star's own music.
The film stars Common, the thoughtful, charismatic Chicago rhymer who, in three- and four-minute hip-hop ruminations, summons more vibrant social imagery than the well-intended but hollow 1 1/2 hours of "LUV."
Common has been more of a cultural ambassador for years now (he was a bizarrely controversial White House guest in 2011), and has increasingly concentrated on acting. "LUV," for which he is also a producer, is perhaps the best close-up yet of an uncommonly smooth performer.
In the film, the feature film debut of Sheldon Candis who co-wrote it with Justin Wilson, Common plays the former convict Vincent, an uncle to the parentless 11-year-old Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.).
"LUV" takes place over a day in Baltimore in which Vincent, driving Woody to school from his grandmother's, instead detours for a lesson-filed day of bonding. Vincent pledges that he'll teach the shy Woody how to "handle your business across the board."
Dressed handsomely and driving a Mercedes, Vincent appears an upright father-figure, but he's desperate to put to work a business plan for which he's $22,000 short. Worse, gang warfare is raging and the word on the street is that Vincent got out of prison suspiciously early.
It's a promising enough conceit – a stressed, untrustworthy but inherently decent guy trying to play the role-model – but the day takes awkward, implausible turns, jumping from violence to stone-skipping in the harbor. The dialogue, too, is often cringe-worthy as the two meet various friends and associates of Vincent's, with cameos by Danny Glover, Dennis Haysbert, Clark Johnson and Michael Kenneth Williams.
Along the way, Vincent teaches Woody (whom Rainey Jr. plays with poise beyond his years) some tenants of manhood: how to properly open crabs, how to give a strong handshake, how to drive a car, how to shoot a gun. Though lacking some dynamism, Common has the gravity to keep the film grounded.
The film, wearing its inspirations on its sleeve, is a kind of "Training Day" hoping for interstitial Terrence Malick poetry in the Baltimore landscape of "The Wire" with the occasional sensationalism of an action film. The clichés mount as the journey leads to bloody standoffs and drug dealer confrontations. Surely there is plenty here to scar a child, though there's little that suggests any trauma for Woody.
Still, there is tenderness in "LUV." One suspects Candis can mature as a naturalistic director if he follows the tagline of his film: "Follow your hero, or become your own man." After all, we are not exactly showered with intimate, aspiring films of urban life.
"LUV," an Indomina Media Inc. release, is rated R for violence, language, child endangerment and some drug content. Running time: 95 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.