Remember when "buppies" were a thing? As if in response to a wave of successful films in the early-1990s that portrayed African Americans as gang members and/or living in impoverished conditions, such as BOYZ N THE HOOD, MENACE II SOCIETY, or the comedic version in FRIDAY, a new breed of black filmmakers retaliated with works like LOVE JONES, SOUL FOOD, and writer-director Malcolm Lee's (cousin of Spike) feature debut, THE BEST MAN, in the mid- to late '90s. The thing these latter films had in common was that they showed the flip side of the movies from earlier that decade by portraying their black characters as living comfortably, upwardly mobile in their careers, dressed to the nines in nearly every frame of the film and more concerned with who was sleeping with whom than the life or death struggles of South Central. As a young white dude, imagine my confusion in the 1990s. Which of these portrayals was I meant to take to heart, especially when I finally met my first black person? (I'm kidding; save it.)
Aside from the FRIDAY sequels and the adaptation of SOUL FOOD into successful TV series, most of these films didn't turns into franchises, although many of the actor in these films went on to bigger and most established careers. Now 14 years after THE BEST MAN's debut, Lee (who also directed UNDERCOVER BROTHER, ROLL BOUNCE, SOUL MEN, and, earlier this year, SCARY MOVIE V) has managed to pull together his original cast and update us on the trials and tribulations of these many characters whose lives have gone in every possible direction involving marriage, kids, health issues, successes and failures.
Catching up with everyone takes nearly the entire first third of the film. There's a helpful Cliff's Notes montage during the opening credits that shows us clips from the first film to remind us who did what with whom and for how long. I wasn't inclined to revisit the first film now, so this was extremely useful. Successful writer Harper (Taye Diggs) is married to chef Robyn (Sanaa Lathan), who is about eight-and-a-half months pregnant, after several failed attempts at having a baby. Harper is still close friends with career woman Jordan (Nia Long), who is a strong, independent woman who happens to be dating Brian, a very good-looking white man (Eddie Cibrian), who is so handsome both the other ladies approve. Lest we forget that in the first film Harper admitted to sleeping with his best friend Lance's (Morris Chestnut) wife Mia (Monica Calhoun) early in their relationship, it's still a sore spot for Lance, a successful running back with the New York Giants. He and Mia have several kids and are having all of the old gang over to their mansion for Christmas.
Other members of the group include Harold Perrineau's Julian; his wife Candace (Regina Hall); Melissa De Sousa's Shelby, a self-centered gold digger starring on one of the "Real Housewives" reality shows; and the highlight of the film, the great Terrence Howard as Quentin, a man with no filter when it comes to sexually explicit thoughts, drug use or getting into it with someone who disrespects you. He's a natural button pusher, and he has his sights set on his friends.
Much of the film's drama stems from Harper struggling to write another hit book, and his publisher suggesting writing the biography of Lance, who is about to break the all-time rushing record during the Giants' Christmas game. There's a great deal of tension between the two men, but Harper is desperate and damn near broke, so he begins to take notes and asking pointed questions to Lance throughout the weekend. Any guesses where this storyline ends up?
Whereas the first film was about these folks entering the early stages of real adulthood by getting involved in long-term relationships and settling into careers, THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY is about being waist deep into adulthood with financial concerns, kids and rough marriages. What undercuts any potential for anything beyond a surface treatment of these crises is the schmaltzy holiday themes. Lance actually promises a dying person to get the rushing record that night. Really!? And while we're examining cliches, there is one character who is outted as a former stripper and possible prostitute years earlier, and her actual defense is effectively, "I was young and I needed this money." That's the best you could come up with, Malcolm Lee?
I'm not usually one to complain about tonal shifts in any movie, but THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY is downright schizophrenic at times, going from cheesy holiday talk of forgiveness and family one minute and then some of the most graphic description of sex acts from the men and women. I'm not complaining about either of these lines of conversation, but when you put them back to back to back in a film, it's a bit jarring.
The other downside to the film is that there are almost no surprises, and predictability is the worst crime any film can commit upon its audience. Even in the performances, the actors are assigned their characters and their traits, and no one really strays from that, with the exception of Terrance Howard, who seems to be free wheeling his lines, making them cut right through everyone's bullshit into their lust-filled souls. Although he'd been in many parts on TV and in movies before The Best Man, it was that film that put him on the map with a lot of people, and he hasn't forgotten what makes Quentin a priceless addition to this cast. But one actor in an ensemble this size cannot save the movie.
So many (maybe all) of the film's emotional peaks are spoon fed and ring so false and manipulative as to be offensive. The audience I saw the film with got so sick of being toyed with in this way, they started to laugh at moments that were meant to be extremely serious. It doesn't get much worse than that. It's hard to completely dismiss THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY because the cast is so easy to look at and listen too. When the characters get into the actual act of conversation (as opposed to the witty zingers they trade 95 percent of the time), the film moves past being tolerable into the realm of enjoyable. But those moments are few and far between. Lee's screenplay is essentially a two-hour soap opera with all of the emotional depth of that format. It's frustrating in so many ways to see this amount of pure talent pulled together to share their shared roots in film and then watch it get squandered because of a weak screenplay.
But there you have it. If you have the uncontrollable urge to see Morris Chestnut shirtless (and who doesn't?), I have a movie for you. Otherwise, simply seeing this impressive cast back together again will only get you so far before you realize the story is beneath each and every one of them.