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'Stella': Chiffon in the Sun

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 1998

  Movie Critic

How Stella Got Her Groove Back Taye Diggs helps Angela Bassett in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." (Fox)

Kevin Rodney Sullivan
Angela Bassett;
Whoopi Goldberg;
Taye Diggs;
Regina King;
and Suzzanne Douglas
Running Time:
2 hours, 4 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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"How Stella Got Her Groove Back" is the chick flick to end all chick flicks. I dare say, it is the "Saving Private Ryan" of the much maligned and misunderstood girls-night-out movie. It isn't realistic, it isn't graphic and only one person dies. But she dies only so that we can have a good cry – tears, along with great sex and an even greater wardrobe, are the imperatives of film peignoir.

They're supposed to be as scanty as panties and as frivolous as toenail polish (whether the shade be siren red, frosty pink or barely there). It's nice if the scenery is lush, although surroundings are secondary to scrumptious hero.

No jowly geezers here, please.

"Stella" goes against the recent trend of pairing fading male stars with nubile female newcomers. The man is younger in "Stella." (You go, girl!) And there is certainly no flab on Taye Diggs, a star of the Broadway musical "Rent," who makes his feature film debut as Winston, Angela Bassett's much younger love interest. It's hard to say which actor is the more buff or beautiful.

The movie is based on Terry McMillan's bestseller, which was inspired by the author's real-life romance with a Jamaican 20 years her junior. McMillan, who co-wrote and co-produced the adaptation, met the young man on a spur-of-the-moment trip to the island. After their affair, she returned home feeling refreshed.

Stella, a 40-year-old stockbroker, books an island vacation on a lark when her well-behaved and loving 11-year-old (Michael J. Pagan) goes to visit his father. Though she rarely gives in to her whims and tries to back out, she's egged on by her best friend, Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg), who joins her for a week of fun in the sun.

When Stella is pursued by Winston, it's the vivacious Delilah who urges her to give him a chance. Still, she continues to rebuff his advances, citing their differences in age. But Winston is persistent – not to mention charming, considerate, attentive, affectionate, smart, sexy and sensitive.

The gorgeous duo wind up under the mosquito netting in her beachside bungalow. After some tastefully photographed grappling, the camera cuts to the luffing curtains and tactfully disappears into the moonlit Jamaican night. By morning, Stella has relocated her groove and finds it to be in good working order.

So what's their problem?

Well, in a guy movie, there wouldn't be one. All would go their separate ways and that would be the end of all that.

In a chick flick, the lovers must suffer some or it's just no fun. Therefore, Stella continues to agonize about the relationship, which Winston would like to make permanent. And he must remain on his knees till the very end.

Unlike old-fashioned "women's pictures," movies like "Stella" aren't trying to be weepy melodramas about failure and misery. They're sheer fantasies that take their cues from '50s froth like "How to Marry a Millionaire." The emphasis isn't on story or character but candlelight dinners, spills of bougainvillea and absolutely everything turning out all right.

If Bassett weren't so dazzling, Diggs weren't so charismatic and Goldberg weren't so brassy, Stella's groove might seem unworthy of our attention. Regina King, the football star's supportive wife in "Jerry Maguire," is also a treat as the saucier of Stella's two sisters. Suzanne Douglas, as the disapproving older sister, contributes what little dramatic conflict can be milked from this glossy fare. I mean, even Stella's graying ex-husband is a peach.

Director Kevin Rodney Sullivan, a television veteran making his feature film debut, has fluffed up this undemanding material much as one would a pillow. But pillows have their place and so do girlfriend movies.

Like vacations, they sometimes get us out of our ruts, which are really just grooves with a bad reputation.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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