[Screen It]


(1999) (Taye Diggs, Nia Long) (R)

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Comedy/Drama: As a first time author plans to be the best man at his friend's wedding, he hopes that the groom and his other college friends don't recognize themselves and their past in the characters of his soon to be published novel.
Harper Stewart (TAYE DIGGS) is an aspiring author whose novel, "Unfinished Business," is going to get some national publicity. While his caterer girlfriend, Robin (SANAA LATHAN), is excited by the news, Harper, is somewhat less so. That's because he's flying to New York to be the best man in the wedding of his old college friends, Lance Sullivan (MORRIS CHESTNUT) and Mia Morgan (MONICA CALHOUN).

While that isn't such a big deal, the fact that the characters and situations in his novel are based on his college friends and their past experiences is a matter of concern. To make matters, worse, Harper has unresolved romantic feelings for Jordan Armstrong (NIA LONG), another college friend and current TV producer, a fact that's rather apparent to his other friends, Murch (HAROLD PERRINEAU) and Quentin (TERRENCE HOWARD).

Leaving Robin at home until the day of the wedding, Harper heads off to spend the weekend with his friends, including Murch's prima donna of a girlfriend, Shelby (MELISSA DE SOUSA). There, amidst the wedding festivities, Harper must deal with a number of issues that arise when his friends recognize themselves and their formerly hidden secrets in his book.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Most people love getting together with old friends, thus explaining the popularity of high school and college reunions as well as any other event that brings former acquaintances together. They also seem to like such reunions in the cinema as films such as "The Big Chill" are critical and box office successes, while others, such as "Romy & Michele's High School Reunion" are entertaining simply for showing the humorous developments that occasionally arise at those gatherings.

Of course such meetings can also generate or resurrect old competitions, jealousy and/or romantic/sexual longings amongst those brought together after a long separation. Imagine then, if one of the reunited stirred up such a reunion by writing a soon to be published novel based on his college friends and their exploits that exposed some long buried secrets.

That's the underlying plot of "The Best Man," a very accomplished debut by writer/director Malcolm D. Lee. In a time when most films featuring a predominantly African-American cast and crew are either urban gangster flicks or embarrassing, sophomoric comedies that reinforce bad stereotypes, this is a refreshing and welcomed change from that norm.

Although the film doesn't completely manage to escape such trappings -- the men see women as sexual objects, some "exotic" and scantily clad dancers perform at a bachelor party and there's plenty of cussing and stereotypical sexual banter -- those moments are surrounded by a mostly intelligent script featuring nicely developed and delineated characters.

It also doesn't hurt that the performers who inhabit them do a credible and enjoyable job portraying them. It's not unusual in these sorts of ensemble cast films for a few main characters to stand out while the rest blend together due to underdeveloped roles or lackluster performances, but that's not the case here.

While neither the film nor its characters approach the level of depth and complexity found in "The Big Chill" -- after all, this one purposefully isn't attempting to be as insightful or serious -- nearly all of the roles are developed enough to make them both interesting and memorable.

If anything, Lee and his cast should be commended for creating a completely believable chemistry between the characters, particularly the four men. Often such groupings feel forced as does their dialogue and interaction, but everything here feels natural from the first moments they get together.

It's that chemistry that propels the plot forward and helps create a highly entertaining picture. As such, many funny moments naturally arise from the characters and their interactions, and clearly don't reek of a heavy-handed screenwriter obviously forcing artificially constructed humor and jokes onto the audience. The characters also go through their individual dramatic arcs where they grow up -- to varying degrees -- and finally resolve those past issues that have been dogging them to some extent ever since parting ways many years earlier.

In a role that should propel him into even more high profile films, Taye Diggs ("The Wood," "How Stella Got Her Groove Back") delivers the best performance of his young career. Playing something of an "everyman" who's initially commitment shy but otherwise seemingly grounded, Diggs brings depth and compassion to his character who turns out to have more flaws than most imagined.

The rest of the performances are solid across the board. Morris Chestnut ("Boyz N the Hood," "G.I. Jane") believably transforms from an idiosyncratically charming big man into a more menacing and disturbed one, while Harold Perrineau ("The Edge," "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet") is entertaining as a man best described as "whipped" by his overbearing girlfriend amusingly played by Melissa De Sousa ("Ride") in the least believable but most outrageous role the film has to offer.

The true scene stealer, however, is Terrence Howard ("Dead Presidents," "Sunset Park"). Playing the cynical character with a seemingly permanent smirk plastered onto his face, Howard, like De Sousa, gets the film's best moments and lines. As far the rest of the ladies' roles, Nia Long ("Soul Food," "Love Jones") is as good as ever, Sanaa Lathan ("Life," "Blade") is believable as the nearly jilted girlfriend and Monica Calhoun ("The Player's Club") is as cute as a button as the bride-to-be.

While the film isn't anything particularly earthshaking or groundbreaking and the ending goes on a bit too long, it may just be remembered, like other ensemble films before it such as "The Big Chill" and "Diner," as the film that "launched" many careers into higher orbits.

Highly entertaining and featuring an enjoyable and attractive cast and a great writing and directing debut by Lee, this is the sort of film that hopefully will be accepted with open arms by both black and white audiences to prove that intelligently mounted films about African-Americans can work. We give "The Best Man" a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed October 14, 1999 / Posted October 22, 1999

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