[Screen It]

(2000) (Madonna, Rupert Everett) (PG-13)

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Drama/Romantic Comedy: After having a child together, an unmarried gay man and his best friend, a straight woman, create an unconventional family that's threatened when the woman eventually falls for another man.
Robert (RUPERT EVERETT), a Los Angeles gardener, and Abbie (MADONNA), a yoga instructor, have been best friends for years and would seem to make a perfect couple. The only problem is, he's gay and Abbie's sworn off men after her latest boyfriend, Kevin (MICHAEL VARTAN), leaves her.

When a mutual friend of theirs dies, the two spend more time together, and after a few too many drinks, they end up sleeping together. The next day, neither can believe what they did and their friendship becomes strained. That is, until Abbie realizes she's pregnant and asks Robert to be the baby's father. He agrees, but only under the condition that he not become her husband and that the two, while living together as an unconventional family, will be free to date whomever they choose.

While his father, Richard (JOSEF SOMMER), and gay friend David (NEIL PATRICK HARRIS), think it's a bad idea, his mother, Helen (LYNN REDGRAVE), encourages him to embrace fatherhood. The arrangement seems to work well, but several years after the birth of their son, Sam (MALCOLM STUMPF), the two feel the strain of seeing the other dating someone else.

That issue comes to a head when Abbie meets Ben (BENJAMIN BRATT), an investment banker, and the two become quite serious. As their relationship intensifies, the three try to deal with their unique family structure and figure out what's best for Sam.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
If there's one gripe that critics and everyday moviegoers share about seeing films on the big screen, it's the trailers that precede them. While sticky floors, small screens and noisy neighbors are certainly irritating in their own right, the coming attraction preview clips (named "trailers" since they once came at the end of the movies while the credits came first) are in a different league altogether and have taken on a life of their own.

While their purpose is obviously to entice the audience and lure them back into the theaters, at one time they were low-budget and often shoddy productions. Nowadays, however, they're big, they're loud and about a gazillion of them precede the main film. Beyond that, they often give away the entire plot when not completely misrepresenting what sort of film they're advertising.

Of course, that's not always the filmmakers' fault, since the studios are often the ones who assemble the footage and music (usually from a well-known film) into a quick cutting, MTV-style mini-event. Whoever is to blame, however, should be stopped as they have a bad influence on the audience's reaction to the film before they see it and during the actual viewing process.

Such was the case with the recently released "comedy," "Hanging Up," that clearly wasn't the film the previews suggested. Now, along comes "The Next Best Thing," billed - at least by its trailers - as a fun and gay (meaning both the old and new definition) romantic comedy about an unconventional family.

Granted, the first half or so falls into that category, but from somewhere after that point and then on through the finish, the film turns into something of an eclectic version of "Kramer vs. Kramer." Although there's certainly nothing wrong with that (and truth be told, it's a bit of a welcomed change from the standard romantic comedy formula that's been run into the ground), the fact that audiences have been led to believe that it's going to be something entirely different is bound to create confusion, anger and/or apathy toward the film and how the story will eventually play out.

As directed by veteran filmmaker John Schlesinger ("Pacific Heights," "Midnight Cowboy") and penned by screenwriter Thomas Ropelewski ("Madhouse"), the film does work quite well during its first stage. The humor is light and playful -- including a fabulous scene where the gay, but not flamboyant character played by Rupert Everett dons something of a Charles Nelson Reilly look on a really wild day and then proceeds to embarrass his friend's ex-boyfriend by acting like his flaming, jilted lover - as are the performances by Everett ("An Ideal Husband," "My Best Friend's Wedding") and singer turned occasional actress Madonna ("Evita," "A League of Their Own").

Once they have their one-night stand, however, the film shifts gears and overall tone. While viewers are apt to anticipate some wild and wacky parenting scenes - probably somewhere along the lines of "Three Men and a Baby" at least as far as Rupert is concerned - Schlesinger and company don't go down that road. Instead, they take a major jump from the birth of the child up through him being of school age, leaving viewers such as myself wondering if one of the film's reels had been left out.

In fact, and unless we were watching an unannounced work print, the technical merits of the film aren't great. Beyond that big gaping edit, the rest of the editing is choppy - as if some sort of salvage crew tried to piecemeal it together - and the dialogue is often noticeably dubbed over the original scene.

Notwithstanding such issues, the film then proceeds to turn into a custody battle that's neither funny nor particularly interesting or heartfelt. While any filmmaker obviously has the right to take his or her film in any direction they desire, the change here is not only unsettling (from the genre aspect), but it also hurts the film for failing to bring the audience along for the ride down its new route. The proceedings become noticeably episodic during this time and beyond a few sporadic moments, simply lose most of their entertainment value. Although not all films have to be "fun" to be enjoyed or admired, they should at least be intriguing to some point. Beyond the meager wondering of who will ultimately get the kid here, the rest of the film never involves the viewer.

Part of that lies not only with the progressively weakening script and overall change of tone, but also with the performances. Rupert Everett, who's rather delightful during the film's more lighthearted moments - and elicits memories of his prior performances in similar roles - swings hard trying to knock the dramatic moments out of the ballpark. Yet, for his decent efforts, he fails to get the audience completely behind his character's goal. Of course, a great deal of that's directly related to the film and its aforementioned problems, and there's nothing here suggesting that the talented actor should forgo future dramatic pieces.

Madonna, who's no stranger to acting (she even received a Golden Globe nomination - for what that's worth - for her role in "Evita"), is generally okay in the role. While she quickly and rather successfully dismisses any notion of "here's another singer trying to do the acting thing," her performance isn't quite up to the caliber of that from other leading actresses and she clearly won't be mistaken for the next Meryl Streep.

Supporting performances are decent, with newcomer Malcolm Stumpf believably playing a young kid (of course he is one, but you get the idea) without being obnoxiously cute in a Hollywood type way, while Benjamin Bratt ("The River Wild," TV's "Law & Order") delivers a good performance as the "other man." Meanwhile, the likes of Neil Patrick Harris ("Starship Troopers," TV's "Doogie Howser, M.D."), Illeana Douglas ("Stir of Echoes," "Happy, Texas") and the terrific Lynn Redgrave ("Gods and Monsters," "Shine") are sporadically used and don't really add much to the proceedings.

While I applaud the notion of the film's breaking of tradition by jumping the tracks of the standard, albeit slightly varied, romantic comedy and turning into something completely different, its execution leaves a bit to be desired.

Other than some technical miscues, the film certainly isn't horrible, but the fact that it becomes increasingly episodic and never fully engages the audience on an emotional level means that it loses much of its entertainment value at it proceeds. Of course, the previews didn't dare show any of that (since no one would buy tickets), but audiences are still apt to find this film less to their liking than they probably imagined. That was certainly my reaction, and as such, "The Next Best Thing" - perhaps better titled, "The Next to Next Best Thing" - rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 28, 2000 / Posted March 3, 2000

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