The best thing for Madonna would be to give up her pursuit of a film career and stick to making music. The next best thing (if she insists on being in the movies) would be to restrict herself to singing roles like her well-received turn in "Evita." Unfortunately, her current, melody-free offering serves only to showcase her bad acting -- and further prove that it's Rupert Everett, and not she, who has on-screen staying power.
With a plot that's reminiscent of a Lifetime network made-for-TV movie, "The Next Best Thing" finds Abbie (Madonna), a 33-year-old Los Angeles yoga instructor, drunkenly falling into bed with her gay best friend, Robert (Everett). Within weeks, Abbie learns that she's pregnant, assumes the child belongs to Robert and offers him the chance to live with her and help raise the child as their own.
Jumping ahead seven years, the family -- which now includes 6-year-old son Sam (Malcolm Stumpf) -- encounters a bump in its happy road. An out-of-town businessman named Ben (Benjamin Bratt) sweeps Abbie off her feet and threatens to head back to New York with her and her son in tow. Afraid of losing Sam, Robert puts a custody battle into motion.
Director John Schlesinger ("Midnight Cowboy") was supposedly chosen by Madonna and Everett to helm this project due to his ability to make a city (in this case Los Angeles) become a character in a film. Other than showing the shallow materialism of the "City of Angels," he falls miserably short of that goal. In fact, Schlesinger appears to have contributed nothing special to the project whatsoever.
While Madonna's acting becomes more tolerable in the later, more serious portion of the film, her work in its opening scenes (which establish her relationship with Everett's character) is extremely wooden. She delivers some horrific line readings in an accent that rapidly fluctuates from American to affected-British tones.
Everett, who created a magical chemistry with Julia Roberts in "My Best Friend's Wedding," is equally charming as Robert, but finds it difficult to build a similarly enchanted working relationship with his real-life friend Madonna. When he's on his own, he makes Robert endearing, frustrating and very human. Bratt is appealing as the man who comes between the family, but screenwriter Tom Ropelewski never manages to flesh out the character.
Several of the supporting actors are sorely wasted, particularly Lynn Redgrave as Robert's mother, Helen Whittaker, and Illeana Douglas as Elizabeth Ryder, the attorney Robert hires to pursue the custody battle.
"The Next Best Thing" does little to truly explore gay-parenting issues, and the emotional effects the legal stand-off might have on the child are simply not dealt with. But the film has produced a killer soundtrack, and I guess that's truly the best thing Madonna has to offer.
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