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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 36

#148 - 150
June 26, 1998 - July 10, 1998


all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

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#150 July 10, 1998

M O V I E S

Lethal Weapon 4 poster Lethal Weapon 4 (R) *** 1/2 premiere pix
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From the moment its rush production was announced, media and industry pundits immediately pegged Lethal Weapon 4 as a disaster waiting to happen. What these naysayers had forgotten was that the Lethal series is not one of the most successful action franchises in film history for nothing, delivering all the requisite slam-bang thrills with appealing actors and a generous dose of humor. The Lethals have a set formula, to be certain, but even in this fourth go-round, the magic and charm is definitely still there.

One of the reasons some had doubts about Lethal 4 is a bloated cast, which had sunk last year's fourth entry in another successful Warner Bros. franchise, the Batman series. And though the ongoing cast additions that have characterized the Lethal series have proven successful in previous installments, on paper, it appeared that the core had reached critical mass in Lethal 4. The original's odd couple cop duo of wild and wacky Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and straightlaced family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) successfully became a trio with the addition of motormouthed money launderer Leo Getz (Joe Pesci) in Lethal 2; that three made an improbably seamless transition to four with Lethal 3's introduction of daredevil Internal Affairs officer Lorna Cole (Rene Russo), the female "lethal weapon." To bring the core ensemble to five is a highly risky and impractical proposition, but screenwriter Channing Gibson (working from a story by Jonathan Lemkin, Alfred Gough, and Miles Millar) and series director Richard Donner decided to add wet-behind-the-ears cop Lee Butters (Chris Rock) into the mix. Initially, the strain of accommodating a large ensemble shows. After an entertaining curtain-raising action scene involving Riggs and Murtaugh's encounter with a flamethrower-wielding maniac comes the lengthy introductions/reintroductions of the rest of the cast: not only Leo, Lorna, and Butters, but also those who have lingered in the background throughout the entire series: police captain Ed Murphy (Steve Kahan), police psychologist Stephanie Woods (Mary Ellen Trainor), Murtaugh's wife Trish (Darlene Love), their daughters Rianne (Traci Wolfe) and Carrie (Ebonie Smith), and son Nick (Damon Hines).

However, what could have easily become tedious for fans of the series and even newcomers is made enjoyable by what has become one of the Lethal series' trademarks: humor (it is ironic that the rather dark Shane Black-penned original, in which Riggs was despondent and suicidal, gradually evolved into an action comedy series). The seemingly misguided addition of Butters also proves to be a fairly effective one. Known to everyone except Murtaugh, Butters is the father of Rianne's unborn child and her secret husband, which creates some predictable but no less funny comedy of misunderstanding (Murtaugh interprets Butters's attention and devotion to be something a bit deeper). Butters's most notable contribution, though, is serving as a formidable F-word-sparring partner for Leo, whose new occupation as a private investigator (!) more comfortably works him into the story than his real estate agent status in Lethal 3.

So what exactly is the story? After our intrepid detective duo, both now promoted to the rank of captain (a plot thread that doesn't particularly lead anywhere), along with Leo, stumble upon a shipload of illegal Chinese immigrants, they find out about a dastardly plan orchestrated by an Asian Triad leader (Hong Kong action legend Jet Li, making his American debut). That's pretty much it, but the lack of story is more than compensated by the presence of a terrific villain, the absence of which was Lethal 3's biggest problem. Though his work here isn't quite at the level as that of his Hong Kong works such as the Once Upon a Time in China series, Li's high-flying martial arts (choreographed by, among others, HK film director Corey Yuen) displays are simply astounding, and he pulls of the none-too-easy task of stealing the show; if Li's ecstatic crowd reaction at the preview screening is any indication, he will become an immediate audience favorite, paving the way for a bright Hollywood future.

With such a large cast, someone is bound to get short shrift, and the victim here, unfortunately, is Russo. Lorna was by far Lethal 3's most inspired element, a Riggs love interest that was every bit his equal. This time around, however, Lorna is just about cleansed of the machisma that made her so popular. In a simply dumb move, the writing crew knocked her up with Riggs's child, thus removing her from nearly all of the action. Although she is given one (way too brief) fight scene, in effect she is made into what Patsy Kensit played in Lethal 2--a token "girl" for Riggs. Lorna is never more sorely missed than in the climax; although Butters is an amusing character, he doesn't click nearly as well as the third partner because he doesn't quite hold his own in the action scenes.

Despite its flaws, what sells Lethal Weapon 4 is the action, and between a spectacular midfilm freeway chase to Li's amazing acrobatics, it is definitely the thrill ride to beat this summer. The film closes with a photo album montage of cast and crew photos culled from all four Lethals, almost as if to close the book on the series. But if Donner and company can keep the Lethal films as fun as all four have been, then there will be plenty more images to add to the album in the future. As the film's final line goes, "We're family," and after four wildly exciting entertainments, audiences will feel (if they don't already) the same way about these characters and will want to return to them in the years to come.


The Mask of Zorro poster The Mask of Zorro (PG-13) *** premiere pix
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Despite numerous vehicles designed to break him out of the fold, Antonio Banderas still remains right on the cusp of major Hollywood stardom. He came out with both guns blazing in Desperado, yet he didn't exactly blow away the box office; Rebecca DeMornay literally sunk her teeth into his naked ass in Never Talk to Strangers, but he himself came away with nothing to chew on; he rode Sylvester Stallone's fast-falling coattails in Assassins; no one cared to see how he and his current wife, Melanie Griffith, met on the job in Two Much. Now, holding some momentum after his well-received supporting turn in Evita, Banderas has his best--and, perhaps, last--shot at Tinseltown superstardom, the rousing romantic adventure The Mask of Zorro.

In a season and an age ruled by action films reliant on post-production effects, the barebones approach of an old fashioned swashbuckler is rather refreshing. As this update of Johnston McCulley's enduring character begins, the legendary masked, sword-wielding defender of the weak and oppressed is really one Don Diego de la Vega (Anthony Hopkins), aiding Mexico's independence effort against Spain. His double life is soon discovered by the evil Spanish governor Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), who kills de la Vega's wife Esperanza (Julietta Rosen), throws him in prison, and claims their infant daughter, Elena, as his own. Twenty years later, de la Vega escapes, at roughly the same time Montero returns from Spain to the now-independent Mexico with the grown Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in tow. Montero, of course, has a dirty scheme up his sleeve, and seeing that he is a bit long in the tooth to reassume the mask of Zorro, grooms young, scruffy, revenge-minded bandit Alejandro Murieta (Banderas) to take his place.

Naturally, this sets the stage for extended training sequences, which are far from anything new but made watchable by some funny repartée written by scripters John Eskow, Ted Elliot, and Terry Rossio; and the effortless mentor-student rapport between Hopkins and Banderas. Unlike some films, though, while Alejandro pretty much passes his training, he still does not perfect certain things (namely, horseback riding) which gives this fantasy some element of reality--and keeps the film from taking itself too seriously. It's this lighthearted, light-on-its-feet tone that makes Zorro such agreeable entertainment. Director Martin Campbell delivers the goods in the many exciting swordfights throughout the movie, but he also displays a nice, breezy touch throughout, particularly in the scene that received the biggest crowd response: a cute and sexy swordplay-as-foreplay scene between Alejandro and Elena.

Although the Alejandro-Elena romance is somewhat underwritten, the pairing comes to life, thanks to palpable chemistry between Banderas and the breathtaking Zeta-Jones, who share a sensual dance scene midway through the film. Actually, Banderas heightens the energy level of every scene he's in. He has always been a charismatic screen presence, but he has never been quite so charmingly roguish and playful, which is perfectly suited to the character. Also well-cast is Hopkins, who appears to be having a ball taking on a more physical role for a change. Less effective, though, is the casting of the villains. Wilson is only slightly more menacing than the weak brand of villainy he leant Lethal Weapon 3, and Matt Letscher, playing the military captain who killed Alejandro's brother (hence the new Zorro's thirst for vengeance), seems no match for the masked swordsman.

While Armageddon and Lethal Weapon 4 pummel moviegoers with mayhem (and quite effectively, at that), it's almost soothing to watch an action film as comparatively laid-back as The Mask of Zorro. It is a fairly relaxed yet confident, competent entertainment, one that is not afraid to bypass a hard sell and allow its innate charms to elegantly seduce its audience.


There's Something About Mary poster There's Something About Mary (R) *** 1/2
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There's something about the Farrelly brothers: in this age of political correctness, the writing/directing duo of Bobby and Peter is not afraid to throw caution and, above all else, good taste to the wind in pursuit of a good laugh. While their go-for-broke style certainly offends as many, if not more, people than it entertains, anyone who can tap into their truly sick and twisted wavelength will find a mother lode of laughs in their latest effort, the often disgusting, constantly shocking, but always hilarious There's Something About Mary.

If the Farrellys pushed the envelope of decency with their previous lowbrow outings, the PG-13 rated Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin, then they tear it to shreds in the R-rated Mary. The film's poster features a rather innocent, almost ironic-sounding disclaimer ("Warning: the guys who did 'Dumb and Dumber' and 'Kingpin' bring you a love story"), but it is a warning worth heeding. Plotwise, Mary does fits the bill of a traditional romantic comedy. Thirteen years after graduation, Rhode Island-based loser Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller), still pines for his glamorous high school love, Mary Jenson (Cameron Diaz), with whom he was supposed to go to the senior prom; needless to say, things did not quite work out. Determined to have another chance at her, Ted hires sleazy insurance claims investigator Pat Healy (Matt Dillon) to track her down in her new home city of Miami--and that he does, only to pursue Mary, now an improbably glam orthopedic surgeon, for himself.

Sounds like typical romantic fluff, but it is far from it. Remember that warning? While the plot covers bases seen in other, tamer romantic comedies, the brand of humor that is explored along the way is of the lowest brow. If the diarrhea and bull semen gags in Dumb and Kingpin, respectively, can be considered "toilet humor," than what the Farrellys delve into in Mary is the waste product itself; "gross-out" humor seems too mild a term. A number of bodily functions (exactly which and how, I will leave as a surprise) provide the basis of some big laughs, as do gags involving drugged dogs, gay sex, and, yes, the physically and mentally challenged. If this sounds offensive to you, it is. But its that giddy, vulgar sense of abandon, doing unspeakable things just extreme enough that it cannot be taken seriously, that makes the brothers such a unique voice in comedy. And one of the most refreshing.

As with all comedies, some gags clank. A Greek chorus-like singer (Jonathan Richman), who, along with an accompanying drummer, appears sporadically to comment on the action, grows old after the first two "spontaneous" appearances (though he is given a satisfying sendoff); and a sight gag revolving around Ted's best friend Dom's (Chris Elliott) sensitive skin condition is not so much funny as just unpleasant to look at. But the Farrellys' hit-to-miss ratio is well over .500, rebounding from duds with some unbelievable showstoppers (such as an outrageous sight gag that will make all men cringe and cross their legs) and an able cast that must be commended for, above all else, their incredible bravery to do some of the things they are called on to do.

It is hard to predict what exactly will be the box office fate of There's Something About Mary; for each person that "gets" the Farrelly brothers' demented sense of humor, there is sure to be at least two that are completely, totally disgusted. But for me and the others on their warped vibe, Mary is bad, dirty fun.


In Brief

Small Soldiers poster Small Soldiers (PG-13) ** 1/2
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"This would have made a hell of a commercial," utters one character late in Small Soldiers. Oh, but it is. Before it manages to build a head of steam in its final, extravagant act, Joe Dante's effects-laden action fantasy about living, thinking, violent combat action figures called the Commando Elite (led by one Chip Hazard, voiced by Tommy Lee Jones) at war with a pieceful group of also-sentient monster toys, the peaceful Gorgonites (led by Archer, voiced by Frank Langella) plays more like a big-screen infomercial for the tie-in toys on sale now. An infomercial, that is, with the schmaltz that passes for emotion in family-aimed films. Young ne'er-do-well Alan can't get a break--his toy store owner father (Kevin Dunn) is distrustful, and his crush Christy (Kirsten Dunst) will only go out with older guys. When his father's store receives a shipment of the Commando Elite and the Gorgonites, and all hell soon breaks loose, Alan gets his chance to prove to his dad, Christy, and everyone else what a trustworthy hero he is. The entertaining war scenes, once they get going, showcase some amazing effects (the toys are both computer-animated and animatronic) and have a witty kick, some of it courtesy of the priceless comic timing of the late Phil Hartman, who plays Christy's unctious father. But once the smoke clears, it's back to schmaltz city.


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#149 July 1, 1998

M O V I E S

Armageddon poster Armageddon (PG-13) ***
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For all the talk about their shared "the sky is falling" theme, Armageddon, about an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, can best be described as the opposite side of a coin shared by its counterpart, the serious falling comet tale Deep Impact. That said, on its own, unique terms, the slam-bang Armageddon is a reasonably satisfying summer blockbuster, with all the flaws and virtues that come with that label.

In addition to the "end of the world" theme, Armageddon and Deep Impact do have another thing in common: successfully overcoming a setup that borders on the ridiculous. After a group of top government and scientific advisors determine that the only way to possibly prevent (yes) armageddon is to detonate a nuclear bomb inside the asteroid, NASA executive director Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) recruits expert deep-core driller Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis, inexplicably speaking in a wildly inconsistent drawl) and his crew to do the job. Of course, these drillers aren't astronauts, which means a slow-going hour-long passage in which the roughnecks undergo extensive training and evaluation for their outer space mission. A lot of what goes on, including psychological and physical exams and a side trip to a strip club, is supposed to be funny. But with the exception of a couple of one-liners dryly delivered by the always-entertaining Steve Buscemi (as horny geologist Rockhound), the comedy is merely tedious--just as tedious, in fact, as the setup of Deep Impact, but in a different way, ineptly aiming for cheap laughs as opposed to earnestly setting up hokey, all-too-familiar disaster epic plot threads.

Armageddon's light touch is just one in its long line of differences from its more grave counterpart. While Deep Impact was a dramatic treatment of a doomsday scenario, Armageddon takes a gung-ho, action-oriented approach. Director Michael Bay (who appears fleetingly as a NASA technician) wastes no time putting the special effects dollars to work; before he hits the basic training lull, Bay treats the audience to a curtain-raising space shuttle explosion and a spectacular meteor shower in New York City. With this different angle comes a pivotal change of perspective, focusing on the outer space rescue mission as opposed to Impact's cross-section of Earth dwellers. So, in essence, it can be said that Armageddon, with its scrappy crew doing their best to "fight the future," is a film about living, not dying, the ominous inevitability of which was the Earth-centered Impact's main issue.

Ultimately, the difference between Armageddon and Deep Impact can be boiled down to a fundamental one: male and female. As Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum observed in her review, the touchy-feely Deep Impact was a "woman's action movie"; Armageddon, from notoriously testosterone-heavy producer Jerry Bruckheimer, is clearly one for the guys. In addition to all the full-throttle spectacle, Armageddon, like all Bruckheimer films, barely has enough time for the onscreen females. Liv Tyler is prominently featured in the marketing campaign, but her slim role is merely an amalgam of two cardboard female stereotypes: rebellious daughter (to Harry) and devoted girlfriend (to driller A.J. Frost, played by Ben Affleck). There is one female on the space crew, ballbusting co-pilot Watts (Jessica Steen), but, in typical Bruckheimer fashion, she's literally shoved out of the way at a critical moment.

So when Armageddon picks up steam with the shuttle launch at about the one-hour mark, it is momentum of the hard-driving, Hollywood action sort that takes over, not the subtle, surprising poignance that Deep Impact eventually took on. Bay, as shown in his previous two films (also Bruckheimer productions), Bad Boys and The Rock, is a crack action director, and he successfully generates tension and excitement from otherwise been-there, done-that situations such as the last-second disarming of a ticking bomb (complete with, as Roger Ebert terms them, an "RDR"--red digital display) and a narrow escape from an exploding complex. All of the mayhem comes bathed in Bay's trademark, music-video-honed visual razzle dazzle, heavy on the quick cuts and slow-mo moments, which keeps the proceedings interesting.

Armageddon is a sturdy popcorn extravaganza; if only Bay and the writing crew of Jonathan Hensleigh, J.J. Abrams, Robert Roy Pool, Jonathan Hensleigh, Tony Gilroy, and Shane Salerno were content to keep it that way. But, seeing they were telling a larger-than-life story (and perhaps swayed by the estrogen of producer Gale Anne Hurd), they decided to go for emotional content to match, with smaller-than-life results. While there is nothing here nearly as embarrassing as the laughably dreary "How Do I Live?"-scored reunion between Nicolas Cage and family in Con Air, the general lack of subtlety in Armageddon (and, for that matter, other Bruckheimer productions) prevent the conclusion, which is to supposed to be a profoundly moving, from completely convincing; the "human drama" comes off every bit as calculated as the effects.

Although two films are quite different, in the end the question will always be "Is Armageddon better than Deep Impact?" For me, it's pretty much a draw, but one that can be decided depending on what it is one wants to see. If it's drama, Deep Impact; if it's action, Armageddon. I'd venture to guess that it's the latter quality most moviegoers would go for, and, consequently, the box office answer to the question would be an emphatic yes.


In Brief

Out of Sight poster Out of Sight (R) *** 1/2
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Chemistry between romantic leads can make or break a film, and never in recent memory has it more "made" a film than in Steven Soderbergh's witty, slick, sexy adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel. Out of Sight jumps back and forth in time to tell the twisting tale of suave bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney, rebounding well after his disastrous turn as the Caped Crusader), out to make one big score after escaping from prison; hot on his trail--and hot for him--is tough U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco (the ever-sultry Jennifer Lopez), who falls hard for Jack's charms after being briefly locked in a trunk with him during his prison break.

Although Out of Sight's intricately structured plot requires the audience's undivided attention, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank (who also adapted Leonard's Get Shorty) are less concerned with story than they are dialogue and the quirky characters that deliver it, and the film offers a wide array of memorable personalities, such as Jack's collaborators in the planned big heist: stoner Glenn (Steve Zahn); the menacing Maurice, a.k.a. Snoopy (Don Cheadle); his clumsy bodyguard White Boy Bob (Keith Loneker); and Jack's partner Buddy (Ving Rhames). Most memorable of all, though, is the central duo of Jack and Karen, who are both acutely aware of the danger of their mutual attraction yet are completely powerless to resist the thrill. The impossibly glamorous and charismatic pair of Clooney and Lopez absolutely sizzle from their first moment together; the soulful, smoldering gazes they lay upon each other are sexier than any explicit scene could ever be. It is their effortless rapport that carries the film and jumpstarts its sometimes-flagging energy.


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#148 June 25, 1998

M O V I E S

Doctor Dolittle poster Doctor Dolittle (PG-13) **
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While many films are released under the label of "family movie," rarely do such films live up to the title. More often than not, these films entertain the wee ones in the family while everyone else remains, quite frankly, bored. This is most certainly the case with the tepid Doctor Dolittle, in which even star Eddie Murphy seems bored.

One critical miscalculation stands at the forefront of Betty Thomas's reworking of the 1967 film based on Hugh Lofting's stories, and that is the casting of Murphy as Dr. John Dolittle, the physician blessed (cursed?) with the ability to speak and listen to the animals. Murphy is one of the funniest, most energetic comedians to ever grace the silver screen, and here he plays straight man to a bunch of animals, who carry the comic burden with mixed results. Norm Macdonald has the best lines as the voice of the stray dog Lucky (his work here is far funnier than anything in Dirty Work), and Chris Rock elicits some laughs (before growing old) as the voice of Dolittle's daughter Maya (Kyla Pratt) guinea pig Rodney. Other celebrity voices, such as those of Albert Brooks, Jenna Elfman, John Leguizamo, Garry Shandling, and Julie Kavner, are less memorable, thanks to some uninspired comic patter by screenwriters Nat Mauldin and Larry Levin.

So while the animals shoulder the laugh load, what does Murphy do? Nothing, basically. He's a strangely passive and sluggish presence though, to be charitable, the material he is given is hardly anything to get worked up over. The main plotline is a boring thread involving a possible buyout of his medical practice, but it's made somewhat tolerable by the amusingly over-the-top Oliver Platt (a partner in Dolittle's practice), playing a medically-licensed variation of his harried campaign manager in Bulworth. Barely reaching the level of tolerance is the saccharine "emotional" hook involving the brainy Maya's low self-esteem. If there is anything more excrutiating to watch than an unfunny comedy, it is one that vainly attempts to pull at heartstrings and make an emotional connection it does not deserve.

Although the totality of Doctor Dolittle feels incredibly tired, there is some genuine creativity and brilliance on display by the computer visual effects technicians and Jim Henson's Creature Shop, which designed the animatronic creature effects, which were used in conjunction with actual animals. It is nearly impossible to tell when the real furry friends end and the effects work begins; the illusion is that convincing. However, while this would be enough to save a film whose sole purpose is to depict wildlife, it is not nearly enough to rescue a comedy that is curiously short on laughs. The harmless Doctor Dolittle's menagerie of cute talking animals should delight the young 'uns, but the delightful-to-all-ages Babe this certainly isn't--a fact that is made all too painfully obvious when a charmless talking pig arrives on the scene.


In Brief

Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss poster Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss (R) ***
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Much like how aspiring photographer Billy Collier (Sean P. Hayes) says he is first and foremost branded as "gay" in his cheeky opening monologue, likely so will this romantic comedy from writer-director Tommy O'Haver. But when Billy ends his monologue saying that the film is for both gays and straights, he is not lying. Though the film focuses on Billy's destined-for-doom love for a straight model, Gabriel (a Rob Lowe/Brad Pitt morph named--get this--Brad Rowe), Kiss does not feel exclusionary. This is mainly because of the endearing character of Billy, who is portrayed first and foremost as a simple, everyday person, not necessarily a gay man. A great deal of the credit goes to Hayes, who gives a natural, understated performance tempered with moments of subtle humor. The character of Gabriel is more of a cipher, but Rowe projects a personality likable enough to make one understand why Billy would be so taken with him.

For a low-budget effort, Kiss certainly does not look cheap. Kiss is shot in 2.35:1 CinemaScope, all the better to showcase the vibrant, near-Technicolor hues created by production designer Franco-Giacamo Carbone and captured by cinematographer Mark Mervis. O'Haver also makes good use of the space in the widescreen format; one of his most inventive flourishes is the placement of still-life Polaroids on the side to depict flashbacks. However, O'Haver does make some missteps. The drag queen dance number that accompanies the opening credits (and subsequent drag numbers) is too campy (or, as Billy calls it, "groovy") for its own good, and two of the three heterosexual males in the film are one-dimensional, buffoonish cartoons. Nonetheless, Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss is an emotionally satisfying and entertaining film that accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making sexual orientation a moot point.


Hav Plenty poster Hav Plenty (R) ** 1/2
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A homeless aspiring writer (Christopher Scott Cherot, who also wrote, directed, and edited) and a wealthy, engaged woman (Chenoa Maxwell) are unlikely friends. Of course, the two are obviously destined to be even less likely lovers, but they naturally can't see it. Hav Plenty (a married combination of the two characters' names--Lee Plenty and Havilland "Hav" Savage) is formulaic, but it has plenty to like, especially Cherot, who has an appealing self-deprecating air onscreen, an ear for dialogue, and an eye for realistic details (some blemishes on his forehead are uncovered by makeup). He and Maxwell have an engaging chemistry, and they are ably supported by Robinne Lee (as Hav's sister Leigh), Tammi Katherine Jones (as Hav's snooty twit friend Caroline), and Hill Harper (as Hav's songwriter fiancé).

The film, however, ultimately underachieves, most notably in the general humor department, relying too heavily on broad, unfunny slapstick (Lee falls out of a chair, Caroline is doused by toilet water after flushing a broken bowl). Also, the subtle emotional momentum it manages to build is erased by the in-jokey and completely unconvincing epilogue, featuring cameos by Nia Long, Young and the Restless hunk Shemar Moore, Mekhi Phifer, the Fugees' Lauryn Hill, TLC's Chilli, and producers Tracey and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. The appearance of the sparkling Long just reminds one of a similar, far-superior African-American romance released last year--the unjustly overlooked gem love jones.


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