Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I love you to death

Nothing makes sense in love and basketball

Posted on Wed, May 12, 2010 at 4:00 AM

**
Just Wright
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Rated: PG
Cast: Queen Latifah, Common , Paula Patton, Michael Landes, Pam Grier
Director: Sanaa Hamri
WorkNameSort: Just Wright
Our Rating: 2.00

There is a great cinematic tradition of male and female leads in romantic comedies trading barbs, cutting each other down with one-liners and generally pulling each other's hair all the way up until they fall in love. It's there in the films of Howard Hawks; Ernst Lubitsch perfected it. It carries on today in movies like The Proposal. But I have never seen something like Just Wright, a dreadful entry into the genre in which the two lead characters are supposed to like each other, but it's the actor (Common) who looks like he wants to kill the actress (Queen Latifah). 

I mean this literally: With his forced smile and willowy cadence, Common plays basketball star Scott McKnight as if he's a newly lobotomized serial killer ' and that's when his character is supposed to be happy. If any mild annoyance or frustration crosses McKnight's path, Common's eyes widen, his voice lowers and, if Latifah weren't so royally tough, we would fear for her safety. I'm not alone in this observation, either. I overheard a comment after the film's screening suggesting that Latifah could probably take him. It's not something a filmmaker would want to hear after a showing of her PG-rated, supposedly feel-good comedy. 

Setting aside Common's incomprehensible screen choices ' not to mention his gaunt physicality that makes him look like a cancer patient next to the actual ballers in the film ' Just Wright is ostensibly about a woman, Leslie Wright (Latifah), who can't land a man because she's just too cool, too 'down,� one of the guys rather than a gold-digging princess, which is the only other choice in the film's universe. (There is an obvious, if ungainly, observation to be made about the underlying sexual-identity politics within the cast, but I'll leave that to Newsweek.) 

Wright's stepsister (or godsister, or who cares), Morgan Alexander (the better-than-this Paula Patton), is one of those princesses and lands McKnight, who puts a ring on it quickly. When he suffers a possibly career-ending injury, Wright is hired on as his physical therapist, and she proceeds to Mickey Goldmill his ass back into fighting shape. 

In the meantime, her sister-thing leaves McKnight for reasons made entirely unclear, leaving the door open for a budding romance between Wright and McKnight. This contrived setup also necessitates an unseemly sibling rivalry that forces Latifah, in one utterly nonsensical scene, to roll her eyes at Alexander while she discusses the death of her mother and the abandonment by her father.

What makes hack director Sanaa Hamri and once-promising screenwriter Michael Elliot (Brown Sugar) think that we want to see the Queen act so uncharacteristically flippant? It's one thing if that's how her character is built, but the filmmakers are so averse to any hint of human flaws in the main characters ' it's only outside forces that ruffle their feathers ' that scenes like this make no sense. 

Speaking of left field, Orlando Magic superstar Dwight Howard appears in one scene as a buddy (and rival) of McKnight's. In the scene, Howard moseys into McKnight's game room and the two exchange playful cut-downs. (That's the only male-male banter allowed in modern black cinema, apparently.) Howard drops a bomb on McKnight, with a big smile on his face: McKnight's team is probably going to negate his contract. Exit: Dwight Howard. 

Thanks, buddy! As if this movie couldn't make any less sense, this is the one scene where Common doesn't look like he wants to kill somebody. 

Maybe we were watching the wrong love story all along. 

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