Spike Lee's Inside Man drops below the 400 mark this week to 281 screens, nursing its amazing $87 million-plus gross. That's a big hit for Lee, and a very big hit for such an uncommonly intelligent and subtle Hollywood movie.

As we near the year's halfway point, Inside Man is still my favorite movie of the 100-plus I've seen (not counting a couple of weeks off for the birth of my son, although the only really big movie I missed is Poseidon -- no big loss). I like Inside Man mainly because it wishes to say something about the way we live in the world today, but does so in a way that movies do best: by slipping its message inside a crackerjack thriller yarn. It's the kind of movie Samuel Fuller might have made given a $45 million budget.

The main thrust of the movie has to do with Clive Owen taking hostages in a bank, and hunting for some priceless object resting inside an unmarked safe deposit box. Denzel Washington plays a detective with a troubled past who tries to find the holes in this plan, and Jodie Foster plays an even more mysterious character that apparently knows everyone and can pull off any favor. The movie is populated not only by these three shady figures, but also by a whole slate of other nationalities and religions. Each acts and reacts either selfishly or helpfully, and their actions correspond to the mood in New York City after 9/11. People in Inside Man are both wary and honest; they feel a new camaraderie with their fellow New Yorkers, as well as a new kind of distrust. In one chilling scene, a child plays a violent video game whose goal is to kill people and get "mo' money."

Many reviewers -- notably Roger Ebert, who gave the movie 2-1/2 stars and only talked about the thriller aspect -- missed this crazy quilt of roiling emotions and ideas. And, like any Spike Lee joint, no answer is provided. But nonetheless, it's more deeply intelligent and far more personal than any other 9/11 film could hope to be.

Case in point: Deepa Mehta's ridiculous Water -- currently on 85 screens and just about to crack a $1 million gross -- has received about the same enthusiastic reviews as Inside Man. Both films rate an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes, and both are within one point of each other on metacritic.com. But Mehta has no real film in which to cram her message -- about the disgraceful treatment of Hindu widows in India. When their husbands die, it's assumed that part of the widow dies as well, so they're shunted off to live in hovels with many freedoms taken away. The story tugs at viewers' heartstrings by introducing an eight year-old widow who barely even knows she was married and does not understand what's happening to her. (In direct counterpoint, Joan Chen's marvelous 1998 film Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl also examines the life of a persecuted young girl, but does so in a profoundly physical, poetic way.)

Of course, panning a movie like this can easily lead to accusations of heartlessness. How could I be so cold toward the widows' plight? Here's a secret: I'm only human. I, too, was angered by the treatment of the widows. But that doesn't make Water a good film. Indeed, it's a truly awful film, relying on the basest melodramatic hysterics and cheesy plot turns; how fortunate that the puppy runs away in the crowded market, only to leap into the arms of the gentle, liberal-leaning scholar (with a handsome day's growth of beard, no less)! Likewise, many viewers have confused the film's lush cinematography for good filmmaking; Mehta includes lots of pictures of flowers and trees and flowing water, but these are nothing more than postcards. They have nothing to do with her story or the texture of the film.

Perhaps most infuriating of all is that Mehta, aiming her film for dumb Western audiences, explains every little detail in blocks of clunky expositional dialogue. When the widows cover themselves in colored powder and begin to dance around, is it really necessary that someone says aloud that it's the "festival of colors"? Couldn't we absorb the essence without having it named for us.

Unfortunately, "issue" filmmaking generally follows the Water example rather than the Inside Man example. There's a kind of gut reaction that viewers go through while watching Very Serious films. If it's a Very Serious Film, it must therefore be a Great Film. For some reason, no one ever questions this logic. It's as if, for suffering through something heavy, viewers reward themselves with the knowledge that they've been changed for the better.

This is not art. No direct line exists between these two ideas. A great film happens when a filmmaker finds some uniquely personal way of showing something. If you watch a film and feel the presence of a filmmaker's soul, rather than his or her teachings, then you've got something. And if you learn something about yourself in the process, all the better.

CATEGORIES Cinematical