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'Next': A Split Decision

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 3, 2000


    'The Next Best Thing' Rupert Everett (far right) and Madonna (left) play unorthodox parents in "The Next Best Thing." (Paramount)
Not 10 minutes into director John Schlesinger's "The Next Best Thing," a half-funny, half-somber examination of gay parenting, lovelorn L.A. yoga instructor Abbie (Madonna) treats us to a glimpse of her well-turned derriere in a thong (like no one's ever seen that before). As he prepares to dump her, weaselly boyfriend Kevin (Michael Vartan) tells her that even her "fantastic body" is not going to make him stay this time.

The gratuitous flash of flesh is meant to establish two things: a) contrary to what you may have heard, this ain't no chick flick; and b) what man in his right mind would turn down such righteous booty?

Now, the second point is far more crucial to the success of the film. If you don't buy it, you don't buy the central premise, which is that Abbie gets knocked up by her gay best friend Robert (Rupert Everett) in a moment of drunken indiscretion. Now that's some good comedy, hoo-hah!

Oh, get over it. You didn't have a problem with Nathan Lane marrying Bette Midler in "Isn't She Great," did you? Oh, you did? Never mind.

Segue to the requisite cute movie shorthand. Abbie gets morning sickness and starts eating like a horse. Abbie to Robert: "I have something to tell you." Cut to shot of grown man fainting, then agreeing to be an active father, followed by warm and fuzzy gestation montage. "He just kicked," crows the proud mom-to-be. "Who needs sleep?" jokes a friend at the baby shower. Get the picture?

The problem is the shorthand is none too short, eating up almost an hour before the kid (Malcolm Stumpf, adorable in a professional sort of way) ever sees the light of day. At long last, we arrive in the present: Abbie and Robert and little Sam are the picture-perfect nuclear family, except that both Mommy and Daddy sleep with other men.

And here's where the film, which has so far been limping along like an anemic comedy, starts to get interesting. Abbie meets and falls in love with Ben (Benjamin Bratt), a dreamboat from Manhattan in town for a corporate takeover. When Ben announces that he wants to marry Abbie and take her and Sam back East, suddenly we've got "Kramer vs. Kramer" on our hands. Ironically, the uglier the ensuing custody battle gets (and it does get ugly, not to mention homophobic), the better the film becomes.

Which is its fatal flaw. "The Next Best Thing" is really two movies in one, and there's not enough breathing room for both of them. Screenwriter Thomas Ropelewski, who made his name with screwball comedies ("Look Who's Talking Now" and "Madhouse") wastes half the film with the familiar straight woman/gay man shtick, when his real story (and the far more involving one, with an utterly unexpected twist I won't even hint at) is the dramatic examination of how society still marginalizes and disenfranchises gay people. (Rent "The Object of My Affection" to see how Wendy Wasserstein did it better.) It's heavy stuff, I know, but Schlesinger obviously has a greater affinity for it than the meringue he has to whip up in the first half. Just as the movie starts to get down and dirty, the final buzzer sounds, dispensing with what should be the movie's climax in a disappointing series of on-screen titles.

In the acting department, as usual, Everett is not the problem here. Capable of both light comedy ("An Ideal Husband") and serious drama ("Another Country"), the actor gets all the best laugh lines ("Now, if I were you, Abbie, and I practically am . . . ") and all the powerhouse emotional scenes as a father fighting for his rights. Clearly out of her league though, his co-star turns in a workmanlike performance that ultimately gets lost in the white-hot glare of Everett's brilliance.

A final note to the chameleon-like leading lady, who here affects the same fake, if slightly fainter, English accent that she has been practicing on talk shows over the past couple of years: You're from Bay City, Mich., ferchrissake! You may be able to fool those Brits Everett and Schlesinger, but the rest of us are on to you.

THE NEXT BEST THING (PG-13, 110 minutes) – Contains partial nudity and sexual innuendo.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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