The same old grooming habits

Movie: The Best Man

Our Rating: 2.00

Everyone in "The Best Man" is gathering for a Manhattan wedding, but almost nobody is having a good time.

The title character is the one who's causing most of the difficulty. His friends have gotten hold of the preview copies of his first novel, a roman à clef in which all of his pals see themselves thinly disguised (not always kindly) as fictional characters.

Just why this young author (Taye Diggs) thought that none of his subjects would mind the appropriation isn't made clear, but it puts him in the odd position of desperately trying to keep people from reading his book (an agenda that's seldom shared by first-time scribes in the real world).

Complications spin off furiously, endangering the author's relationship with his girlfriend (Sanaa Lathan) and his old flame (Nia Long), not to mention the bride (Monica Calhoun) and groom (Morris Chestnut).

Because first-time writer-director Malcolm D. Lee assigns his all-black cast to characters who largely earn six-figure incomes, it's tempting to say that there's something un-Hollywood going on here. But Lee's story, which rambles on for a good half-hour longer than is necessary, contains little we haven't already seen dozens of times at the movies. (Anyone who's weary of on-screen weddings, receptions, bachelor parties and frosty reunions should certainly look elsewhere for entertainment.)

Lee worked with filmmaker Spike Lee (who here gets a producer's credit) on several features, but the promise he shows extends to little of his mentor's edgy incisiveness, nor much of his visual artistry. This Lee's film is peppered not with action but with two-shots of looooong conversations.

If those conversations yielded some fresh discoveries, "The Best Man" might be forgiven for its excursions into tedium. But in between its extremely predictable plot turns, no one says anything that's particularly unexpected.

Some very interesting faces, however, do emerge. Terrence Howard, a veteran of small film roles and TV work, capitalizes on his part as a troublemaking musician who doesn't mind watching others squirm. And Lathan shows range and charm in a girlfriend role that gets little screen time. Diggs, perhaps best known as the studly boyfriend in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, acquits himself reasonably in the lead, thoroughly demolishing the one-dimensional Chestnut in their scenes together.

Based on the evidence of this first feature, Malcolm Lee the writer probably has a brighter future than Malcolm Lee the director. His narrative's plot developments recall the kinds of situations Preston Sturges used to cook up, yet he lacks a Sturges-like sense of timing and madcap urgency that would bring his stories to a true boil.

Just when it appeared that African-American filmmakers were consumed with either laughing at their own community ("Life") or revealing its warts ("Clockers"), it's gratifying to know that someone wants to explore other types of sophistication. Of course, it's a little odd to visit a Manhattan that has no whites, Hispanics or Asians among its population. But Hollywood stylization is a longstanding tradition, and there's always space for new avenues of filmic expression. Let's hope that Malcolm Lee's next avenues are the home to faster rides.

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