Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Jumping the Broom

By Pamela Zoslov

Having reviewed my share of ethnic wedding comedies – including, memorably, one about the clash between a Latino family and an African American family that featured a priapic goat running around trying to mate with guests – I cannot fail to commend Jumping the Broom for its taste and humanity.

Few new wineskins are available for the old wine of matrimonial farce, whose basic premise has future in-laws converging for a wedding and clashing comedically, but director Salim Akil (TV’s The Game, Girlfriends) handles Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs’ thoughtful screenplay with poise and a fine visual sense. Whereas too many comedies made for African American audiences resort to over-the-top slapstick, Jumping the Broom manages to weave cultural, historical, linguistic, economic and religious issues into an otherwise commonplace formula.

The betrothed couple “meet cute” after pretty Sabrina (Paula Patton) knocks over Jason (Laz Alonso) with her car. Sabrina, a successful lawyer, has made a bargain with God: she will stop sleeping with inappropriate men if He sends along her soulmate, so she believes Jason is the answer to her prayers. Sabrina’s job offer in China prompts Jason to hastily propose, and a wedding is scheduled at her parents’ sprawling estate on Martha’s Vineyard, a chunk of realty that rivals the Kennedy compound, complete with traditional, Kennedyesque touch football games.

Sabrina, whose character aptly shares the name of Audrey Hepburn’s pampered princess in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, has lived a privileged life of top schools, servants and swimming pools. Her parents, the Watsons (Brian Stokes Mitchell and Angela Bassett) drink Bellinis and sprinkle their conversation with casual French. Their wealthy idyll is not all it seems, of course; implications of infidelity, financial problems and long-buried family secrets loom over their genteel paradise.

The appearance of Jason’s widowed mother, Pam, played by the reliably divine Loretta Devine, suggests some promising contrast to the dull, denatured universe of the wealthy Watsons, though the comedic potential of her character is not fully realized. Pam, a feisty Brooklyn postal clerk, has anger management issues, and her future daughter-in-law’s eager attempts to befriend her only irritate her (“She sent me a text message! Strike one!”). With her best friend (Tasha Smith), brother-in-law (the ubiquitous and amusing Mike Epps) and Jason’s friends, Pam alights at the estate for the wedding, already loaded for bear. Manipulative and possessive, Pam complains about everything from the cold shrimp (“It’s supposed to be cold, Ma,” explains her exasperated son) to the couple’s unwillingness to perform the family tradition of “jumping the broom,” a nod to the marriage ritual of slave days. (It turns out that the Watsons’ progenitors, unlike the Taylors’, were not slaves, but slave owners).

When Pam become privy to ­the scandalous Watson family secret, she can’t help but blurt out the long-buried truth, nearly derailing the wedding. With this development, the movie takes an unfortunate turn from light culture-clash comedy to Peyton Place melodrama, and yet the interactions and relationships are sensitively written and acted, making the movie more absorbing than you might expect. It’s regrettable that Pam, who reads her Bible to justify her hateful actions, is made so villainous, since Devine is the funniest member of the cast. Besides, Pam’s resentment of her son’s snobbish future in-laws is somewhat justified. They are a colossal bore.

As written, the engaged couple are a fairly bland pair, but the friends and family members who orbit around them are variously interesting: fortyish Tasha, with her long braids and sanguine demeanor, contemplating whether to give a pint-sized 20-year-old admirer a tumble; haughty maid of honor Blythe (Megan Goode), finding herself attracted to the Chef (exotically handsome Gary Dourdan), a man completely different from her usual, affluent beaus; Jason’s cousin Malcolm (DeRay Davis), hurt because his envy of Jason has cost him an invitation to be best man; Sabrina’s free-living Aunt Geneva (Valerie Pettiford), embarrassing the bride’s mother by singing a sultry “Sexual Healing” at the rehearsal dinner. A formula comedy-drama it may be, but one with some genuinely affecting moments, punctuated at the end by the plaintive tenor of the late Curtis Mayfield.

It’s not as though the outcome of the story is ever in doubt, but the pathway, threaded with ideas about class divisions, marital commitment, family loyalty, friendship, and the meaning of prayer and forgiveness, is a fairly rewarding one.

Something Borrowed

By Pamela Zoslov

One of my favorite childhood pastimes was playing a board game called “Barbie, Queen of the Prom.” The object was to get to the prom first, with the prettiest dress and the handsomest date. We girls would roll the dice to win one of four boyfriends, the most desirable of whom was Ken, a perfect, chiseled WASP of a fellow, on whose arm we would presumably spark the envy of all the other girls. Honestly, readers, this game and its questionable values messed me up for years.

I was reminded of this while watching Something Borrowed, a romantic comedy in which two women compete for the love of a man named Dex, played by the impossibly good-looking Colin Egglesfield, late of Melrose Place and All My Children. Aside from being a nice guy who will lend a law school classmate his only pen, Dex’s chief virtue is his underwear-model handsomeness. He is also alarmingly passive, an object tossed about by two women and his parents, a helpless cork bobbing about in a sea of other people’s desires.

The movie is directed by Luke Greenfield and based on a best-selling novel by Emily Giffin, one of those lightweight, pink-covered books popularly classified as “chick lit.” It is clearly aimed at women who came of age in the ’80s, sprinkled as it is with references to such cultural talismans as Who’s The Boss and Growing Pains. The novel is narrated by Rachel, an associate at a New York law firm associate who is turning 30 and still single (gasp!). After her surprise birthday party, Rachel winds up drunkenly sleeping with her best friend’s fiancĂ©, the aforementioned Dex, for whom she has harbored a secret crush since they were law school classmates. Like a girl playing the Barbie game, Rachel never believed she could win anyone as handsome as Dex, so she fixed him up with her prettier, flirtier best friend, Darcy. As it happens, Dex has been in love with Rachel for years. (In the Barbie game, Rachel would have ended up with the redheaded, freckle-faced nerd named Poindexter.)

The movie version of this story emphasizes its shallowest elements – the romance, the bridal gowns, the Chanel handbags, the shoes, the weekends in the Hamptons, the girls’ dance duet to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” and the drinking (lots of drinking). The book, though far from great literature, contains some insight about the problems of young urban professionals. Here is the book’s Rachel, lamenting her unrewarding job: “I work excruciating hours for a mean-spirited, anal-retentive partner, doing mostly tedious tasks, and that sort of hatred for what you do for a living begins to chip away at you.” Movie Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) disposes of this with a single line (“I hate my job”). Book Darcy has a glamorous PR job; movie Darcy (Kate Hudson) seems to do little but shop. (The movie’s conception of NYU law school is also a bit strange; a flashback to a law school class has Rachel and Dex’s torts professor discussing tortious interference, pronouncing it “tor-tee-ous,” as though lecturing on land-dwelling reptiles. Were I Rachel, I might look into Columbia.)

None of these details would matter if the movie were funnier, but Jennie Snyder’s wit-challenged screenplay leaves the capable cast, which also includes John Krasinski as Ethan, Rachel’s confidante and secret admirer and Steve Howey as Marcus, a goofy womanizer who pursues both Rachel and Darcy, reciting lines that are supposed to be amusing but aren’t. It doesn’t help that the leading characters are so lacking in charisma. Goodwin, something of a specialist in lovelorn single-girl roles (He’s Just Not That Into You), is mannered and annoying, and Hudson’s Darcy is a shallow, self-centered vulgarian, making it hard to fathom why Rachel loves her so much and why Dex ever wanted to marry her (and further, why his uptight millionaire parents are so fond of her). The romantic triangle, which troubles the waters during an entire summer of weekends in the Hamptons, is resolved in a way that is all too convenient, so no one needs to bother about the moral implications.

The success of a romantic comedy depends largely on good writing and likeable characters, whose fate the audience needs to care about. This entry falls short in both areas, with flaccid pacing that makes it seem even longer than its 110-minute running time. It is not without its virtues, including pretty people and New York settings to look at, glowing cinematography by Charles Minsky, and a pop soundtrack designed to appeal to young women whose tastes were formed in the ’80s. These are the women who presumably have read Giffin’s book and will try to drag reluctant boyfriends to the movie. A warning to those young gentlemen: a post-credits scene promises a sequel, probably based on Giffin’s Something Blue.

Everything Must Go

By Pamela Zoslov

Writer-director Dan Rush has taken a short story by Raymond Carver, the influential minimalist author, and created a lovely, mournful little film about an alcoholic on a downward spiral. Though not the first Carver film adaptation, or even the first adaptation of “Why Don’t You Dance?” (an Australian short was called Everything Goes), it may be the most expansive treatment a seven-page story has ever received. The story serves as a skeleton upon which Rush drapes a thoughtfully written, fully realized drama.

Will Ferrell, a non-intuitive casting choice, again demonstrates his capability for dramatic acting as Nick, a salesman who is fired for chronic alcoholism and arrives home to find his wife gone, locks changed and all his possessions — from his ski machine to his father’s LP collection — on the lawn. Camped outside on his recliner and chugging endless Pabst cans, Nick enlists the help of Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a neglected neighborhood kid, in conducting the yard sale of his life.

Although many things happen – Nick teaches Kenny salesmanship and baseball, befriends a pregnant neighbor (Rebecca Hall) and reconnects with a high school admirer (Laura Dern) – the film remains quiet and relatively static, staying true to Carver’s brevity and theme of lonely alcoholic desperation.