Has it really been nearly 15 years? In 1999, “The Best Man” became a hit romantic comedy, a launching pad for several of its attractive, gifted young stars and part of an amazing wave of African American rom-coms that included “Love & Basketball,” “Love Jones,” “Soul Food” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.”
It’s taken writer-director Malcolm D. Lee this long to deliver a sequel, “The Best Man Holiday,” but his timing is propitious. Not only has his ensemble aged remarkably well, but his film also is once again part of an exciting time in black film, in this case a year that has spanned the reassuring uplift of “42” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” the searing history of “12 Years a Slave” and such vibrant contemporary stories as “Fruitvale Station” and “Newlyweeds.” Oh yes, and “Peeples” and “Baggage Claim,” which share more than a little DNA with “The Best Man,” which was that rare Hollywood movie that presented African American life not as an urban “problem” but as a lush wish-fulfillment fantasy of prosperity, friendship and faith.
Those principles also propel “The Best Man Holiday,” which begins with an efficient sequence of flashbacks and updates: Harper (Taye Diggs), after becoming a bestselling author, hasn’t written a book for a while (hint, hint Mr. Lee?). His wife, Robyn (Sanaa Lathan), a successful chef, is nine months pregnant with their first child. Lance (Morris Chestnut) is a star running back for the New York Giants, and his wife, Mia (Monica Calhoun), serenely looks after their sprawling New Jersey estate and impeccably behaved four children. Jordan (Nia Long) is a hard-charging executive at MSNBC, Quentin (Terrence Howard) is a music impresario, Julian and Candace (Harold Perrineau, Regina Hall) have opened their own school and Shelby (Melissa De Sousa), it will surprise no one to know, has become the star of Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Westchester.”
When the gang gathers at Lance’s palatial pad for a days-long Christmas party, some long-standing tensions re-emerge, culminating in at least one epic cat fight, a stunning, tragic turn and a delicious dance number from the guys set to vintage New Edition. Like a long-lost soap opera emerging from a Rip Van Winkle-length hiatus, “The Best Man Holiday” has lost none of its often baggy, saggy melodrama; luckily, when things get too soppy, Howard can be depended on for crude one-liners that land with all the more finesse thanks to his smoky, slightly stoned delivery.
And “The Best Man Holiday” has clearly caught up with the times, with one plot point revolving around social media run amok, off-handedly invoking everyone from Barack Obama (natch) to Melissa Harris-Perry, Olivia Pope and Robin Thicke. That last name-check comes by way of Shelby when she meets Jordan’s new boyfriend, played with square-jawed appeal by Eddie Cibrian.
There’s no denying that the maudlin, message-y machinery of “The Best Man Holiday” often threatens to collapse of its own self-conscious weight. This is a one-two-three-four hankie movie that misses no opportunity to wring a few tears, no matter how shameless. Lee’s efforts to imbue his often profane, sexually ribald proceedings with religiosity can be heavy-handed, especially when Lance’s attempt to break the all-time rushing record somehow becomes a proxy for a holy, life-and-death struggle. But it’s refreshing to see characters for whom prayer and spiritual service are an everyday part of life. And, as with the first film, it’s the actors who bring warmth, humanity and compulsive watchability to every moment of “The Best Man Holiday,” no matter how ersatz, overprocessed or manipulative.
In other words, you don’t go to “The Best Man Holiday” to deconstruct its flaws. You go for its myriad, adamantly un-cerebral pleasures. You go to see Chestnut take that shirt off. You go to giggle at Howard, then come up short during a frank and unexpectedly moving encounter when he talks about money with one of his friends.
And you go to take in the quietly regal Calhoun, whose subdued performance sneaks up and grabs you while you thought you were laughing at something else. You go simply to take in the fineness, beauty and charisma of everyone involved in “The Best Man Holiday,” which — in the age of Obama and Olivia Pope and “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave” and “Baggage Claim” — its once-starved audiences may finally be able to take for granted.
Fourteen years ago, “The Best Man” was firmly rooted in a niche, part of a mini-trend that wasn’t guaranteed to last. Today, “The Best Man Holiday” possesses all the strengths and weaknesses of banal, high-gloss mainstream entertainment: It’s boringly, bracingly, gratifyingly conventional. No shame in that game.
★ ★ ½
R. At area theaters. Contains profanity, sexual content and brief nudity. 122 minutes.