Sitting around with a group of friends reminiscing about the past is often a fun activity. Reliving one's former experiences, reveling in the memories and/or laughing about previous mistakes or events that once seemed important, but now seem trivial or antiquated, can be quite enjoyable and often makes the "daydreamers" feel young again.
Listening to others doing the same isn't quite as much fun since you don't share their common experiences, but can be interesting if you know the people and/or their stories prove to be entertaining. If the storytellers are complete strangers, however, and their stories are of the "you really needed to be there" variety, sitting through such recollected tales can quickly become a boring and distancing affair.
Such is the case with the release of "The Wood," a film similar in structure to 1995's "Now and Then," but obviously different in that it's about a group of black men, instead of white women, who come together to help a friend in need. As such, this ensemble comedy about three friends reminiscing about their past in Inglewood, CA (thus the "wood") while trying to get one of them sober and then to the altar has its moments, but overall comes off as a mediocre affair at best.
Although the film is based on writer/director Rick Famuyiwa's (making his feature film debut) memories of growing up in the middle-class African-American neighborhood of Inglewood and hanging with his pals, its "coming of age" story certainly isn't novel material.
While its hook is that it's told from a black perspective, the story's not tremendously different in its universal theme from say, the exploits of Richie, Ralph and Potsie on the old TV show "Happy Days," and Kevin Arnold and Paul Pfeiffer growing up on "The Wonder Years." Certainly different in its storytelling approach -- and this one's obviously filled with more "adult" content -- they all tell their tales to which most everyone -- especially if you're a guy -- can relate.
Where this film stumbles, however, is the way in which it delivers its story and in particular, the underlying structure it uses in doing so. While other pictures have been successful at handling concurrent storylines where the one from the past arises from the contemporary story (such as the aforementioned "Now and Then," as well as "Fried Green Tomatoes" and the recent "This is My Father"), this one mishandles the format in several ways.
For one, the present day story regarding the two friends trying to convince the third to fulfill his marriage promise and then get him to the wedding in time is ultimately less than compelling. While that's often the case with similarly constructed films -- where the flashback story is the stronger of the two -- the story here, despite the time deadline, doesn't have much urgency, forward thrust or particularly compelling characters.
While the three adult friends embodied by Omar Epps ("The Mod Squad," "Major League II"), Taye Diggs ("Go," "How Stella Got Her Groove Back") and Richard T. Jones ("Event Horizon," "Kiss the Girls") have the requisite handsome looks along with the potential to be interesting, we never get the chance to find out if that's true.
Although the performers have plenty of inherent charisma, writer/director Famuyiwa doesn't allow them to fully utilize it. We know next to nothing about them beyond their initial characteristics, and instead of developing them in any significant way, the freshman director instead relies on them breaking the "fourth wall." That's where the characters directly address the camera to impart information to the audience when not doing so via the completely unnecessary voice over narration.
The former device can be fun if used properly -- such as in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" -- but Famuyiwa only manages one clever, and brief moment with it. Otherwise, the effect is sporadically used and rarely funny. While I understand that the present-day characters are meant to be just introductory to those in the past, they're obviously connected. Thus, for us to care about one set, we similarly need to do so for the other.
It's the flashback plot, however, the causes greater problems. Whereas most similar movies have a congruous plot -- that may occasionally jump forward through time but generally continues with one key story -- this one is best described as episodic. With the only unifying theme being the three guys and their various exploits growing up together -- particularly regarding women -- those events never really connect with each other, let alone the audience in much of a satisfying manner.
Although a few of them contain some mildly charming or funny moments, for the most part they're uneventful and never come together to make an interesting or compelling story. It doesn't help that Famuyiwa's script occasionally contains stilted dialogue that not only sounds artificial and occasionally bad enough to induce howls, but also derails the performers' attempts to bring some much needed believability to their characters and the overall proceedings.
Regarding the performances, Sean Nelson ("American Buffalo") is the most appealing of the trio as presented during their younger years and delivers a winning performance. Meanwhile, Trent Cameron and Duane Finley (both making their big screen debuts) are decent, but not very memorable in their outings.
Malinda Williams ("High School High") nicely fulfills the pretty, but initially romantically defiant young woman character who's often found in such stories, while De'aundre Bonds ("Get on the Bus") is okay as her young thug brother, but neither can really make their characters come alive.
While the film thankfully manages to avoid many of the traditional stereotypes found in comedies featuring a predominantly black cast -- most of them here aren't thugs or idiots -- it doesn't eliminate all of them. Although teen-based sex comedies featuring white kids are a dime a dozen, and films featuring black casts certainly have just as much a right to play off such subject matter, it's too bad this one had to succumb to that last stereotype.
Although the characters here are presented as more intelligent than most films of this genre, one has to wonder why there can't be the black "Stand By Me" or "October Sky" that shows black kids as something other than sex-crazed youngsters constantly talking about "getting some booty" or betting who will get "lucky" first. So many similar films have already come down the pike over the years that this one didn't need to join the ranks.
I'll now step down from my soapbox, but will reiterate that it's a shame this film didn't take a higher road -- so to speak -- in telling its tale. Occasionally funny, but too episodic for its own good, the film has its moments, but is otherwise a rather unremarkable experience. As such, we give "The Wood" a 4 out of 10.