The Best Man (1999)
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee
Cast: Taye Diggs, Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, Sanaa Lathan, Terrence Howard, Harold Perrineau, Monica Calhoun, Melissa De Sousa, Regina Hall.
1999 121 minutes
Rated: (for profanity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 24, 1999.
As "The Best Man" unraveled, it became apparent to me that the large majority of films made about African-American characters either (A) involve crime, drugs, and violence, or (B) are romantic comedy-dramas about family and/or friends who come together for a certain occasion. While the latter is certainly more appealing because it deals with that middle-upper-class section that is rarely dealt with on film, the results are usually botched by stereotypical, often juvenile, characterizations, or exaggerated plotting devices. Such is the case with "The Best Man," directed by Spike Lee's cousin, Malcolm D. Lee, which has so much going for it at the outset that you almost feel cheated when everything begins to revolve squarely around a wedding (this subject has been so overdone) and a scandalous, secretly autobiographical book that one of the character's has written and the others have gotten their hands on. Of course, this premise still easily might have worked had the screenplay, also by Lee, been written with more depth and intelligence, and not resorted to such frequent immature behavior.
Taye Diggs toplines the bright cast as Harper Stewart, a writer in his late-20's, whom has just left his loving girlfriend Robin (Sanaa Lathan) to return to his hometown and act as the best man for his college buddy's wedding. Robin will arrive a few days later to attend the wedding, but right now Harper is most interested in rekindling his friendships with all of his confidants from years gone by. The groom, Lance (Morris Chestnut), is a pro-football player who is madly in love with his bride-to-be, the angelic Mia (Monica Calhoun), and Harper's other best friends from the past include Murch (Harold Perrineau Jr.), a slightly nerdy type who is overrun by his domineering, ice queen girlfriend Shelby (Melissa De Sousa), and Quentin (Terrence Howard), a playful, wise-cracking musician. The plot is set into motion when Harper once again meets his old college flame Jordan (Nia Long), and sparks instantly fly. Jordan, a television executive, has gotten her hands on Harper's upcoming book, "Unfinished Business," and as it gets passed around among the rest of the old gang, they slowly discover that the fictional character names are only a cover-up of themselves, with all the sordid details intact. The pressure is on for Harper, who is propositioned by Jordan to spend the night with her (they never "got together" in school), and is suddenly under fire from everyone for writing about their most personal details, and even some unknown secrets, including a past rendezvous he had with the bride Mia.
With such a minor storyline and characters who are far from three-dimensionally written, "The Best Man," as has been noted before, plays like a distaff version of 1983's classic, "The Big Chill," but without the nostalgic memories, sharp dialogue (the phrase, "You DOG!," has to have been used at least a half-dozen times), and smooth narrative flow. While a movie about friends coming together is all well and good (and was marvelously done in 1996's "Beautiful Girls," in which a 10-year high school reunion was the catalyst that set the plot into motion), "The Best Man" ruins things by adding the insubstantial book subplot into the mix, and not even using it to its fullest capabilities.
While some characters remain stereotypes throughout, without any attempt at further development (Melissa De Sousa's Shelby quickly comes to mind), others are performed with a true-to-life edge that makes them creditable. Taye Diggs is adequate as Harper, the character which everything centers around, but he made a more lasting impression in his supporting role in last spring's flashy "Go." Who should be especially noted, however, are Nia Long, who is so very assured as an actress that I wish she'd break out of this type of role she plays over and over; Terrence Howard, who has loads of fun with the most comedic character of the piece; and Sanaa Lathan, whose neglected girlfriend role of Harper's is the one we most sympathize and identify with. Meanwhile, Regina Hall makes a more-than-memorable appearance as a bright-eyed stripper who Murch is bewitched by at Lance's bachelor party.
If director Malcolm D. Lee really wanted to make a more sophisticated film about a large portion of the population who often times go unnoticed in the world of films, why did he insist on making some of the characters act so childish? At one point, after a dark secret is uncovered by Lance about Harper, instead of having a conversation with him and talking the problem out, he resorts to knocking over the table, grabbing Harper by the collar, and threatening him. When this occurrence takes place in movies over such a petty thing, solely to add some interest and further conflict into the dwindling proceedings, I immediately lose all respect for the character. I know I wouldn't want to be friends with someone who would act like that.
As with 1997's melodramatic, corny "Soul Food," and last summer's "The Wood," which also starred Diggs in a story set around a wedding(!), "The Best Man" aspires to be something more than it actually is. Kudos to Lee for trying his hand at a more knowledgeable picture that all audiences (not just African-Americans) might enjoy, but he also gets more than his share of debits for its severely flawed treatment. At over two hours in length, "The Best Man" thankfully never overstays its welcome and goes by fairly fast, but by the time the Electric Slide was carried out by everyone at the wedding reception over the end credits, I realized that the actors deserved far better. As is, the conclusion plays like an excuse for each of the cast members to give themselves a pat on the back, when they really didn't earn that pat to begin with.
©1999 by Dustin Putman