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(2002) (Cameron Diaz, Christina Applegate) (R)

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Romantic Comedy: A woman known for avoiding commitment finds herself traveling across the state to find a man she's unexpectedly and uncharacteristically fallen for.
Determined not to have her heart trampled upon anymore, San Franciscan Christina Walters (CAMERON DIAZ) has assumed a love 'em and leave 'em mentality where she's out to have a good time, but isn't looking for commitment. That changes one night, however, when she and her friend Courtney Rockliffe (CHRISTINA APPLEGATE) take their recently dumped friend, Jane Burns (SELMA BLAIR), out to a club to have some fun.

While trying to get someone to dance with Jane, Christina grabs Peter Donahue (THOMAS JANE) and tries to manipulate him into liking Jane. When he refuses, the antagonistic sparks fly between them, but so do some romantic ones. Meeting up again, the two apologize and Christina hears that Peter's brother, Roger (JASON BATEMAN), is getting married the following Saturday across the state, but she opts not to attend their party later that night.

When Courtney realizes and is surprised that Christina seems smitten with Peter, she encourages her to crash the wedding and so they set out on a road trip. Along the way, they run into various comical situations and obstacles, including the bride-to-be, Judy Webb (PARKER POSEY), who isn't sure she wants to get married.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
As most everyone knows, movies come in all shapes, sizes and colors as well as genres. The casual moviegoer might not notice, however, that many of those in certain categories are formulaic in one sense or another. That's particularly true with romantic comedies.

While they're very popular with the ladies and some men, the usual plot -- of a man and woman meeting, not getting along, eventually becoming friends and lovers before some secret or misunderstanding breaks them up just so that they can get back together at the end - has become more than a little stale and predictable.

Thus, when any film comes along and puts some sort of spin or adds a little variation on that formula, no matter how far it might go or push the boundaries, it's greeted with some level of gratefulness just for offering a change to those of us who see far too many movies in a lifetime.

Such is the case with "The Sweetest Thing," a film that's billed as "a romantic comedy…without the sugar." Although I'm not exactly sure how accurate that is - since it's still somewhat sweet, but at least not coated in such goo - this decidedly adult picture is certainly a bit askew from the normal offerings of the genre.

Part sex comedy, part road trip flick with some singles romance thrown in, the film feels something like the second coming of "There's Something About Mary," no doubt due to its goofy nature, sex-related material and the presence of one Cameron Diaz.

The Farrelly brothers are absent from this one, however, with screenwriter Nancy Pimental (TV's "South Park") and director Roger Kumble ("Cruel Intentions") taking their place in crafting and helming a silly, sophomoric and often rather funny and cute tale.

Although obviously not for all viewers, the effort could prove to be quite popular with women in the same age bracket and relational status as those appearing in the film, as well as anyone who doesn't mind the off-kilter, off-color and nonrealistic material found within it. After all, it takes the right sort of attitude to accept a picture where a character asks if there's time for a "let's try on different outfits in the dressing room" musical montage and we're then presented with one.

Seemingly hedging their box office and later rental bets, the filmmakers have opted to play to both sexes. While the film is focused on the women, their situation and the female perspective of dating and relationships (but offers little, if any new insight on any of that), the sexually related humor, material and views of the women in their unmentionables will obviously draw and appease the guys who normally come up with some sort of yard or auto excuse to get out of seeing this sort of picture.

Although not playing with as big a gun or as much ammo as standard spoof films, the filmmakers also throw out a large number of attempts at tickling the funny bone, hoping that for every one that might not work, one or more successful ones will make viewers forget the failures. Like those sorts of movies, some of the material works quite well here, while other moments fall flat or are likely to induce groans. Yet, in my opinion - and yours may vary - far more of the efforts hit than miss.

What makes the film work best, however, is the fresh, engaging and infectiously fun performance by Cameron Diaz ("Vanilla Sky," "Shrek"). While she's shown her uninhibited, get down and have silly fun side before (such as in parts of "Charlie's Angels" and "There's Something About Mary"), she takes that one step further here, creating a winning character who's rather charming and entertaining to behold even when wallowing in all of the off-color material.

Matching up with her rather well at first but less so as the story progresses is Thomas Jane ("Original Sin," "Magnolia") as the guy who finally knocks her off her relationship high horse. While the chemistry between them ebbs and flows along with the plot, most viewers will end up rooting for them to get together, even if the conclusion of the story regarding them is rather weak (if satisfying for diehard fans of the genre).

As the female lead's best friends, Christina Applegate ("Just Visiting," "Jane Austin's Mafia!") and Selma Blair ("Legally Blonde," "Cruel Intentions") are okay, but suffer from shallowly developed characters. While Applegate finally gets a more "mature" role than much of what she's been doing in the past, Blair gets to play some of the film's more risqué material and doesn't/can't do much with it.

Jason Bateman ("Love Stinks," "Necessary Roughness") plays the male lead's brother and is quite good in the role, while Parker Posey ("The Anniversary Party," "Josie and the Pussycats") briefly shows up as a bride-to-be who isn't so sure she wants to get hitched.

It doesn't take long into the film before one is apt to realize that the cast and crew simply want to make a silly and adult romantic comedy, have fun while doing so, and invite viewers along for the ride. In that regard, the film certainly succeeds on its own, distinct level.

Truth be told, it's really not a good movie from an artistic standpoint -- let alone a sophisticated, clever or brilliantly plotted one - as everything's seemingly thrown together without a great deal of connective or creative thought. In addition, some of the material might go a bit too far in its attempts to outdo or at least match the humorous style of films such as "There's Something About Mary." Nevertheless, it has enough fun and funny moments, as well as the bubbly and delightful presence of Diaz for it to earn a bit more than an average grade. "The Sweetest Thing" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 9, 2002 / Posted April 12, 2002

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