The Next Best Thing (2000)
Directed by John Schlesinger
Cast: Rupert Everett, Madonna, Benjamin Bratt, Malcolm Stumpf, Michael Vartan, Lynn Redgrave, Josef Sommer, Neil Patrick Harris, Illeana Douglas, Stacy Edwards.
2000 107 minutes
Rated: (for profanity and brief partial nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 4, 2000.
If "The Next Best Thing" had come out prior to 1998's remarkably similar "The Object of My Affection," it still wouldn't be a good film, but in comparison with that picture's thoughtful nature, smart writing, and intelligence, it especially flounders. On nearly every level, "The Next Best Thing" is an inferior piece of work, which is all the more surprising considering the film feels like a recent film school graduate is at the helm making his debut, rather than Academy Award winning director John Schlesinger (1969's "Midnight Cowboy"). Calamitously moving at a snail's pace, apparently edited by an octogenarian, and with more amateurish performances than usual in a studio picture, "The Next Best Thing" is bad filmmaking.
Abbie Reynolds (Madonna) is a single yoga instructor approaching 40, and who still hasn't found that special someone in her life. She wants to have a child, but feels that it should only be something to share with that person she loves. As usual when anything happens to her, after being dumped yet again by her sometimes boyfriend Kevin (Michael Vartan), she seeks solace in her very best friend, Robert (Rupert Everett), a gardener. Robert is the most wonderful, most understanding man Abbie knows, and it is sensed that they would be perfect for one another if not for him being gay.
Following the funeral of one of their close friends, who has died of AIDS, Robert and Abbie decide to spend the night together to keep each other company, but in the process consume just a little too much alcohol, have sex, and in a few weeks, like clockwork, Abbie discovers she is pregnant. He very much wants to be a father to the child, so Robert and Abbie move in together and decide to live platonically, thus providing a healthy family life.
Switch forward six years, their son, Sam (Malcolm Stumpf), is a caring, happy young boy, and Abbie and Robert have been able to maintain their pact. Then a complication arises: Abbie meets Ben (Benjamin Bratt), in California from New York City on business, and they instantly hit it off. With a new man in Abbie's life, Robert begins to sense that their happy existence together, thus far, is about to come to an end.
The premise for "The Next Best Thing" sounds amiable enough for it to likely be an enjoyable film, but so much of it is flawed, or a missed opportunity, that it is amazing the people involved in its making didn't realize there needed to be some serious changes, both in the sloppily underwritten and flat screenplay, by Thomas Ropelewski, as well as in the basic filmmaking approach, which is unprofessional at best.
The first hour, which is about as alive as a three-day-old corpse, does not move as much as it slinks depressingly slow across the ground. You sit there, watching as one misdirected scene after the next shows up on the screen, and you long for something substantial, or at least vaguely interesting, to arise from the proceedings. Sitting through the opening sixty minutes is one of the biggest endurance tests in a film so far this year.
Once the action moves to the present day, when Sam is 6-years-old, things thankfully become more tolerable. The light, yet painfully dull, tone of the first half is replaced by more serious matters, including a vicious custody battle that ultimately leaves Abbie and Robert on opposing sides. Issues of fatherhood, biology, and the bearing that homosexuality does, or does not, have on caring for a child, are touched upon, and while this section of the picture works somewhat, it is all thanks to Rupert Everett's powerhouse performance. You feel the pain and betrayal that Robert is feeling, thanks to Everett's realistic portrayal, and therefore, you end up finding yourself rooting for him, and getting involved in how everything will turn out for him.
Less appealing is Abbie. This is the sole case, however, in which it is not the writing that should be put to blame, but the actress. Whereas Madonna was exceptionally vibrant in 1996's "Evita," here she is surprisingly stiff, delivering her lines in a stilted manner that does not feel real, and suffers noticeably more when sharing scenes alongside the vastly more talented Everett. If there is a bright side, it is that as the film progresses, gradually so does Madonna's performance. That is not to say, though, that she is ever good.
All supporting players either try valiantly, or don't know what to do when given such unsatisfying roles. Benjamin Bratt is not written as the "bad guy," but as a compassionate man who sympathizes with Robert, and he equips himself nicely. Lynn Redgrave is warm and memorable as Robert's mother, but she has very little time to create a well-rounded character, and ultimately never gets to. Likewise for Neil Patrick Harris, as one of Robert's gay friends who is given an AIDS subplot that is so undernourished one wonders why it was even included in the film. There is no payoff, and it adds nothing to the central storyline. As Sam, Malcolm Stumpf may be one of the few kid actors in recent memory who didn't drive me up the wall, and his performance was stronger and more assured than even Madonna's. Finally, the usually reliable Illeana Douglas, as Robert's attorney, is so unconvincing that it seems as if she is doing nothing more than playing dress-up.
Characters and minor plotlines are brought up and dropped without a moment's pause throughout, while Robert and Abbie remain the star attractions. Unfortunately, Everett is the only individual who makes us care about the fate of the story, and without him, the film would be even more of a failure. As is, "The Next Best Thing" is a depressing, lugubrious film experience, and Everett deserves much better.
©2000 by Dustin Putman