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Movies

Review: 'The Best Man' is above average

October 28, 1999
Web posted at: 3:29 p.m. EDT (1929 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- It's Hollywood's shame that the current group of African-American filmmakers is the first. The far-ranging social implications of the racist tradition behind this reality could fill a library. But the artists are at a disadvantage now that they're being allowed -- to a larger degree, anyway -- to enter the commercial arena.

Spike Lee has blazed more of a trail than many people recognize, not because he's the godfather of the movement but because he refuses to be tied into one kind of film. So far, most black directors have opted for tales of inner-city guns and ammunition, which is legitimate but covers only one small possible aspect of the African-American experience. There are as many different stories to be told as there are people drawing oxygen, and the playing field is finally getting broader.

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Kasi Lemmons' 1997 "Eve's Bayou" is the standard-bearer, displaying a level of intellect and cinematic craft that even outdistances Lee's best work.

But what we're getting now is the softer stuff, the overtly commercial films that must take hold before the industry will fully open the floodgates. It's time to start making films that just happen to be created by African-Americans, rather than work defined as "black films."

Progress amid the elegance

Malcolm D. Lee's "The Best Man" is a pleasant enough step in the right direction, and it sports just about the most attractive cast of the year. But it's not especially complicated, hovering somewhere between a drama about sexual relations and light FM radio.

Although it has the same smoothly elegant tone, "The Best Man" is more watchable than glossy pieces of wish-fulfillment like "Waiting to Exhale" (1995) and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" (1998). The elegance, however, almost becomes an obstacle. The clothes are so sharp, the cars so fancy and the actors so chiseled and impeccably groomed, you start to feel like you're watching a GQ magazine spread that somehow has sprung to life.

Taye Diggs (the best-looking man on Earth?) stars as Harper, a novelist whose first book has been selected for coronation by Oprah Winfrey's Book Club, a broad-stroke signifier of black power and opulence if ever there was one. Harper leaves his girlfriend Robin (Sanaa Lathan) for a few days and heads from Chicago to New York to hang with his buddies. One of them, Lance -- a womanizing professional quarterback played by Morris Chestnut -- is about to tie the knot.

Harper's not too sure about committing to his girlfriend, and he secretly yearns to start a romance with an old college classmate when he gets to Manhattan. The classmate is a Black Entertainment Network producer named Jordan, and the fact that she's embodied by Nia Long would suggest that somebody's going to end up in some lingerie. And she does. In keeping with the rest of the film, it's the fanciest, most expensive-looking lingerie you've ever seen.

Harper's friends are reeling from the content of his book. They can all see themselves in the characters, and every 10 minutes or so we get to watch somebody confront him with this. Diggs has to keep acting embarrassed or threatened, but it seems like Harper would have known these would be his friends' reactions when he wrote the damned thing.

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The inspiration for one of the poorly disguised characters plays a major role in the third act of the film, but the rest of the book-related agitation gets tedious. With one exception, these people don't seem to have any real problems. It would make more sense if the book were brushed aside for another mixed drink or high-fashion shopping spree.

Harper's best friends consist of Lance, the soon-to-be groom; Murch (Harold Perrineau) who's thoroughly whipped by his manipulative girlfriend (Melissa De Sousa); and Quentin (Terrence Howard), a smoothie with a mean streak -- he likes to start arguments between his friends, then sit back and enjoy the action.

The guys are all properly delineated, but the only memorable character is Quentin. He's the only one who lies outside the realm of overheated stylishness. (When Harper and his girlfriend lounge in a bathtub together, there are 25 candles burning and the water is covered in rose petals.) Howard's cold, self-satisfied glare incites several satisfying confrontations. Foremost among them is a card game between the friends that degenerates into a near-brawl when Quentin suggests to Lance that his bride-to-be (Monica Calhoun) may not be as chaste as she wants everyone to believe.

"The Best Man" isn't bound to set the world on fire, but its agreeable cast should be enough to draw folks into the theater. That's what Hollywood is looking for, and less-deserving films than this one rake in the big bucks every year. Worse things could happen than this film being a hit. If it is one, we're still in the early stages of what will surely prove to be a powerful force in American films. Everyone, after all, likes to see his or her stories told.


"The Best Man" contains bad language and scantily clad women, but no nudity. One drawback is the highly questionable suggestion that the answer to one character's problems is the college-girl stripper he meets at a bachelor party. Talk about convenient -- she's well-read and knows how to jiggle her behind. Rated R. 118 minutes.


RELATED STORIES:
The other Lee begins search for filmmaking voice
October 20, 1999
Review: 'How Stella Got Her Groove Back' sudsy, sexy fun
August 14, 1998
Lee opens up on career, upbringing
May 11, 1998
Black filmmaker finds rich material in ordinary lives
February 2, 1997

RELATED SITES:
Official 'The Best Man' site
Universal Pictures
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