Friday, August 14, 1998

'Groove' stuck in same-old story

Movie: How Stella Got Her Groove Back

Posted on Fri, Aug 14, 1998 at 4:00 AM

**1/2
Our Rating: 2.50

"Boy, I'm old enough to be your mother," 40-year-old single mom and successful businesswoman Stella (Angela Bassett) tells Winston (Taye Diggs), a handsome young Jamaican she meets while on vacation in Montego Bay. Stella and various family members, friends and even strangers spend the bulk of "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," an uneven adaptation of the Terry McMillan best seller, worrying that the title character's relationship with a man two decades her junior just won't work.

It's a textbook romance-movie convention right out of Screenwriting 101: Put a seemingly insurmountable obstacle between two lovers and watch them overcome the odds. Trouble is, Bassett and newcomer Diggs don't really look the part of a generation-gapped couple.

The actress, who also played a lead in the big-screen version of McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale" (and gained an Oscar nomination in "What's Love Got to Do With It?") is a youthful 39, while her partner looks and carries himself like all of his 27 years. Who cares if two attractive, wealthy, emotionally needy people find each other for fun and, possibly, a future together?

That leads to the film's other significant flaw. Once the lovebirds set up house in Stella's luxurious pad near San Francisco, nothing much happens except the inevitable. Debut feature-film director Kevin Rodney Sullivan and screenwriters McMillan and Ron Bass fail to dress up the old formula -- lovers win, lose and win each other -- with anything remotely original.

McMillan and Co., also to their discredit, give us a rosy vision of Jamaica, a picture-postcard view of lush hillside foliage viewed from an ultra-exclusive resort, and beaches apparently untouched by humans prior to the arrival of Stella and Delilah, yet another zany sidekick overplayed by Whoopi Goldberg. "God's here," the usually wisecracking Delilah says, resting on a barren patch of coast. No character even once sees the dilapidated shacks that dot the island, nor is anyone ever pressured by scores of pushy vendors to purchase Red Stripe, ganja, T-shirts, jewelry or hair braids. Yeah, mon.

It's mildly entertaining accepting the fantasy, though, and following the ever-appealing Bassett as she goes through the motions of a once- or twice-burned mature woman tentatively approaching new romance before unabashedly giving it her all.

Stella, taking a spur-of-the-moment vacation after catching a television commercial advertising the wonders of Jamaica (as does this movie), meets her million-dollar-smile man at breakfast and wards off the advances of a pair of libidinous new acquaintances of Delilah's.

The film's elusive charm reveals itself in the sweet chemistry between Bassett and Diggs; the sassy, nonstop chatter of Regina King as Stella's little sister, Vanessa; and the conviviality of a homecoming barbecue thrown in honor of the new couple's return from Jamaica. Stella's female relatives crowd around a car to get a peek at her young man and, later, ex-husband Walter offers what sounds like fatherly advise to his replacement.

Then again, for every effective scene, there are several tacked-on plot detours: A major character dies of cancer, Stella rejects a $275,000-a-year position in favor of starting her own business, and then there's the revelation of her little-known talent as a first-class designer and builder of furniture. Too bad one of the few films targeted at African-American audiences this season couldn't fight its way past Hollywood conventions.

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