In the great relationship game--and if you don't think it's a game, you probably came out the womb hitched--there are men who commit. Men who don't commit won't commit. Ever. And then there are the men who can't commit, serial monogamists who stand frozen at the abyss, unable to jump in--and unable to walk away.
In "The Best Man," there are celluloid representatives from each category, straight out of one of those ubiquitous "Men Are From . . . " books: There's Lance (Morris Chestnut), a Bible-thumping, panty-hunting football player who's decided that marriage is the sure-fire "cure for promiscuity." Or at least that's what he hopes. There's Quentin (Terrence Dashon Howard), who never met a woman he didn't want to bed. And of course, there's Harper (Taye Diggs), Lance's best man, who prides himself on the fact that he's managed to survive two years in a "drama-free" relationship but gets all squirmy whenever his long-suffering girlfriend, Robin (Sanaa Lathan), mentions the L-word.
They're all buddies from their college days, gathered together to celebrate the impending nuptials of Lance and his too-good-to-be-true bride, Mia (Monica Calhoun). So what if Harper's new novel promises to toss some serious skeletons out of their designer-filled closets? What's a little drama among friends?
Such is the premise of writer-director Malcolm Lee's "The Best Man," the latest entrant in the beautiful-buppie school of filmmaking (preceded by "Love Jones," "Hav Plenty" and "How to Be a Player"), where the men are all buff and the women are all fine. Everyone is an outrageous success, from Harper's impending bestseller that's already been anointed by Oprah, to Lance's phat NFL contract, to Jordan's glamorous TV producer gig. Still, notwithstanding the flush trappings, this is a film about feelings, particularly those of men as they grapple with the Big Issues: Will marriage permanently scratch that itch? Is there such a thing as an Ideal Woman? Is the one that got away always The One? What about the Madonna/Whore thing? Is true fidelity possible? And just what constitutes loyalty in friendship?
And because this is a film about men, the women play on the sidelines. They are either altar-bound, wannabe altar-bound or too obsessed with career to realize that they should be altar-bound. Nia Long plays Jordan, the "best girlfriend Harper never had." She's a producer at BET (miraculously relocated from Washington to Manhattan), and in the hands of Lee (who's Spike Lee's cousin), she's yet another depiction of an ambitious career woman who can't get a man, never mind that she's sexy, beautiful and smart. "Jordan's too damn sassy and independent," Lance tells Harper. "A woman like that don't need no man. She's just one step from lesbian."
Lines like that practically beg "Best Man" to dig deeper, to excavate the contradictions between what men often say they want and what they really want. But "Best Man" starts smart and finishes dumb. It skitters between soap opera and slapstick, never settling on a happy medium. Too much time is devoted to the twists and turns of the contrived plot line--namely, whether Harper's way-too-autobiographical novel will derail the wedding. Despite the script's weaknesses, however, the actors serve up strong performances. Audiences will no doubt take to the engaging Diggs, who sent hearts a-fluttering with his debut performance in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," while Long gives a nuanced reading of an underwritten part. A particular standout is the droll Howard, who plays the womanizing player of the group--or at least the one who is the most in touch with his inner dog. Beneath Quentin's bravado are glimpses of a wounded heart, albeit one in deep denial: "My mother not being around don't have [expletive] to do with how I be treating these [women]."
It's been dubbed the black "Big Chill," but to do so does a disservice to the film, as if the filmmakers are unable to come up with a single original thought, beyond mimicking the creations of white filmmakers who've gone before them. That's too bad. There are precious few images of African American love playing at the local cineplex, let alone characters who want to make it to the church on time. To that end, Lee's film fills a void, lighting up the screen with a big chocolate kiss.
But ultimately when it's all said and done, "Best Man" remains always a groomsman, never a groom: It backs down on its promise to both challenge and entertain, opting instead for the easy laugh--and the pat ending.
The Best Man (115 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, adult situations and semi-nudity.
CAPTION: Taye Diggs as the novelist whose work hits home and Sanaa Lathan as his girlfriend.
CAPTION: Going to the chapel: Lance Sullivan (Morris Chestnut) is toasted by his best man, Harper (Taye Diggs), in "The Best Man."