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The Best Man
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee
Starring Taye Diggs, Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau, Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, and Monica Calhoun
Running Time: 118 minutes

The rise of African-American film in the '90s can be attributed, at least in part, to the work of Spike Lee and especially the success of the 1991 movie Boyz N the Hood. That film, directed by John Singleton, opened the floodgates for a whole slew of imitators that followed--black gangster flicks like Juice, Dead Presidents, and others. In the last few years, producers and studios have realized they can actually make money (and sometimes a lot of money) with movies targeted at the black community; so the African-American film has thankfully broadened beyond guns and drugs into more narrative fare. Sure, there are still violence-driven flicks like Thicker than Water (which opens soon), but there are also plenty of movies like How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Soul Food, and this week's Best Man.

The Best Man is a romantic comedy about a bunch of friends from college who get back together when two of their group get married. The protagonist is Harper Stewart (Taye Diggs), who's just finished his first novel (soon to be featured on Oprah) and whose girlfriend Robin (Sanaa Lathan) is pressuring him to make the big commitment. But Harper's not sure he's ready for that step, particularly when there's some unfinished business with Jordan Armstrong (Nia Long), a strong-willed girl from college who's also in town for the wedding.

Other members of the group include: Lance, the groom as well as a famous football player; Mia, the sweet, virginal bride; Quentin, a good-looking guy who tries every job and woman he can find; and Murch, a weakling who's dominated by his irritating girlfriend Shelby. The movie spends the first twenty minutes woodenly introducing each of the characters. It's almost like a game show, where each person gets two minutes to tell a little bit about themselves. Thankfully, once everything's in place, the movie settles into a nice, if leisurely, jaunt.

Complicating the weekend is Harper's book, a thinly-veiled account of the group's college adventures, adventures that Lance in particular doesn't and shouldn't know about. One of the best scenes happens early in the film when the four male characters get together for a game of cards. Their riffs on each other as well as the women in their lives are funny, sometimes a little crude, but always interesting and revealing of the interpersonal dynamics that form the foundation of the movie. It's particularly fascinating to watch how the conversation goes from being a friendly, casual discussion to something much more serious.

The movie is helped immeasurably by the strong performances of three of the actors. Morris Chestnut, who plays Lance and is best-known for his starring role in Boyz N the Hood, is just great as the groom-to-be. His portrayal of the conflicted star football player who's deeply religious and equally promiscuous is convincing in every scene he's in. Sanaa Lathan (Life) also does a nice job with a tricky part. Though she's only on-screen at the beginning and end of the film, her turn as the put-upon girlfriend is played with style and nuance. The biggest kudos of all, though, go to Terrence Howard as Quentin. His perfect comic timing and knowing facial expressions liven the movie considerably, and his dramatic moments are just as compelling.

Unfortunately, the two leads aren't as good. Taye Diggs, who appeared in this year's Go but is most famous for helping Stella "get her groove back," is bland. And Nia Long, best known for her role in the long-running television series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, just doesn't exude the charisma that she did in Soul Food and Love Jones. Most damaging is that the two seem particularly awkward in their scenes together. It's hard for the audience to believe that these two could ever get together.

Fortunately, that subplot is only a small part of the film. Instead, the interactions of the entire group form the backbone of the movie. And first-time screenwriter and director Malcolm D. Lee handles those well. The film strolls along, adding a plot twist here, a character shift there. Though the wedding scene and reception take a little too much time, the movie has a nice pace and feel. Lee and  cinematographer Frank Prinzi (She's the One) do a solid job of setting the mood with appropriate lighting and camera angles. Nothing special, but also nothing noticeably wrong.

It should be noted that, though this is a romantic comedy, the jokes and language are often more explicit than usually found in the genre. And while there's no nudity, there is a potpourri of grinding strippers (at the bachelor party), women in lingerie and, to balance things out, numerous shots of Diggs's well-muscled physique.

Interestingly, there's also a strong theological component to the story. Harper is a resolute agnostic/atheist, while Lance genuinely loves God, even if he's also a womanizer. In other director's hands, Lance might be set up as a hypocrite, but that doesn't happen here. Instead, Lance tries to get Harper to turn to God as well. While not exactly evangelistic, the movie does a nice job of showing how African-Americans approach their faith.

One of the unfortunate aspects of the rise of African-American films is how they've been marketed. The Best Man is a funny, thoughtful, and enjoyable trip through the lives of seven people. But because they're black and it's assumed that African Americans are only interesting to other African Americans, few white people will ever see this film (I was the only white  person in a crowd of several hundred this weekend). And that's a shame, because The Best Man is a far better movie than Story of Us and indeed one of the better romantic comedies of the last several months.

J. Robert Parks   10/27/99



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