[Things Fall Apart screened at this year's Atlanta Film Festival.]
Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson can’t act. It’s not a slam against his character; it’s just something he can’t do. But his lack of acting ability is an absolute killer in the Mario Van Peebles drama Things Fall Apart where Jackson takes on the role of a football player who gets cancer. Jackson seriously committed to making a full-on physical transformation for the role, but he apparently couldn’t be bothered to take an acting lesson, which makes all of his hard work seem like a waste. Even if the film didn’t hinge on Jackson’s performance, it would still be beset by maudlin clichés, irritating supporting characters, and poor direction.
Deon (Jackson) is a star college football player who’s on the verge of going pro. However, despite receiving love and praise for his entire life due to his athletic ability, he’s still a good guy who loves his family and is willing to share the glory on the football field. His mother Bee (Lynn Whitfield) is incredibly proud, his younger brother Sean (Cedric Sanders) is understandably jealous, and Bee’s boyfriend/Deon’s surrogate father Eric (Peebles) sees the football star as a winning lottery ticket. There’s an opportunity for a lot of shading here and all of it is missed. The only way Jackson knows how to inform the audience that Deon is a nice guy is to just smile. No inflection, no charisma, no charm—just a gigantic smile plastered on his face which is mostly obscured by his hair anyway.
Then the hammer comes down: Deon, having just played the football game of his life and on the verge of being drafted into the NFL, learns he has cancer. Again, this is a moment where the story could show some shading and the mess of emotions that comes with such horrible news. Instead, the family’s denial isn’t at the cancer test, but that Deon will be able to play football again. That’s their first question: “He can still play though, right?” It makes Deon’s family appear stupid and callow and if you think this would infuriate Deon, you’d be wrong. Deon has the right to be angry as hell that a cruel twist of fate has taken everything from him, but Jackson decides it’s better if the character just appear sad and pathetic from the time he learns of his cancer diagnosis to the end of the movie.
The supporting performances are made worse because when they’re in a scene with Deon, they have to play against Jackson’s anti-charisma. Sean simply comes off like a creep who doesn’t even appear to struggle with the conflicting emotions that his brother is no longer a superstar, but someone he loves has a life-threatening illness. Eric seems even more selfish and simpleminded as he keeps pushing Deon to get over the whole cancer thing and get back to being a 220 pound runningback. Only Whitfield gives an honest performance that comes from a place of genuine emotion, and her best scene, where she breaks down over the cost of Deon’s medical bills, is so good it feels like it’s from a different movie.
What’s perplexing is how Peebles churned out such a clichéd drama. Peebles, an actor, should have understood that Jackson lacked any acting ability and tried to compensate by providing energy and creativity to the direction. Instead, he rolls out tired sappy elements like sad piano music and even a closing shot freeze frame. There’s also a smattering of incompetence that’s unexpected from a veteran like Peebles. In the scene with the big game, Peebles fills in a stadium with CG fans, but when it comes time for close-ups of the action, we can see that the bleachers in the background are empty. Why didn’t it occur to Peebles to simply move his extras to the next shot? It’s difficult to believe that Peebles, who previously directed the exciting 2003 film Baadasssss! would make something that would get laughed off the Lifetime network.
There’s no help from the script either. Jackson and co-writer Brian A. Miller dodge an honest story and then fill it with awful dialogue. One particularly memorable scene has Eric providing incredibly racist advice to Deon. I can’t quote the scene verbatim, but Eric basically tells Deon that in order to succeed, “You need the hard-working attitude of a Chinese man, the education of a rich white man, the business skills of a Jewish man, and the soul and flavor of the black man.” I absolutely believed that Eric would give that kind of advice, but I would believe that David Brent would give it too. It’s a tone deaf bit of dialogue that is representative of the stilted, unemotional writing.
Yet in the end, it all comes down to Jackson’s wretched performance. With a stronger actor at the center, Things Fall Apart could have at least been a serviceable albeit saccharine drama. Instead, the movie is a chore and the viewer sits in bewilderment as to why no one has given Jackson any acting tips. I sat wondering, “Does he not know he can raise and lower his voice to convey emotion? Is he aware that he needs to annunciate so that people can understand what he’s saying? Why not just cast a cinderblock as Deon? You’d get a better performance.”