REVIEW: Choppy Filmmaking Sabotages Star Chemistry Just Wright
Testing the versatility of Queen Latifah's appeal has become something of a cultural, platform-hopping pastime: Hip hop artist, jazz singer, sitcom star, talk and awards show host, (Oscar-nominated) supporting player in a major movie musical, cosmetics model, and finally leading lady in the affecting Last Holiday -- her non-threatening likability has made her triple threat about three times over. It's painful, then, to watch her seeming eagerness to please lead her to streamlined vehicles like Just Wright, a film so tightly rigged that even its star's centrifugal charms can't keep you fully checked in.
Latifah plays Leslie Wright, a New Jersey physical therapist with a tumble-down house and an old beater of a car -- life's little chinks only highlight her comfort with the world and her place in it. She's living single, naturally -- a condition she doesn't seem particularly inclined to correct -- and her blind dates end in a hail of high fives, not sparks. This, we are told by her longtime friend, a ruthless heifer named Morgan (Paula Patton), is because Leslie "has homegirl written all over her." The film, written by Michael Elliot and directed by Sanaa Hamri (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2) is filled with weirdly canned urbanisms. ("Daddy, you are too fly," Leslie says to her father, played by James Pickens Jr.; "Yeah, yeah, I'm the man," he replies.) The twinkly sitcom score playing underneath only adds to the film's hammy, shrink-wrapped feel.
A huge basketball fan not willing to forfeit her relaxed-fit jeans and Nets jersey, Leslie suffers Morgan's predator drone-like approach to "bagging" a rich man with the patience of someone who has spent a lifetime watching good things happen to bad (or just pretty) people. When she runs into New Jersey Nets star Scott McKnight (Common) after a game, her radiant good nature snags her an invitation to a party thrown at his bitchin' Manhattan pad. Inevitably, she becomes invisible once Scott gets a load of Morgan's fake-ass assets. Why a woman of clear common sense would remain interested in such a man is left conveniently shady, and the film detours into Scott and Morgan's high-profile relationship and quick engagement. Aided by eye-candy outfits and brief-but-amusing turns by both Pam Grier and Phylicia Rashad, this section rolls on smoothly enough; when Scott sustains a career-ending injury, however, the film locks into its pretty-on-the-inside endgame.
Hamri, who brought some irresistible verve to the second installment of the Traveling Pants franchise, is all schmaltzy business here. Once the fickle Morgan is out of the picture and Leslie is installed as the trainer who will nurse Scott back into championship form, not a single bullet point is missed; even the writing of Leslie's eleventh hour, half-time pep talk is on the wall. Distracted by inconsistent characterization, bumpy pacing and camera work that is indifferent when it's not actively annoying, I found myself policing -- rather than settling into -- the film's classic formula. Hamri's lens often seems to root around before settling on its central image, and she handles delicate scenes as if they were basketball rallies, chopping them up, changing angles, and adding unnecessary coverage that detracts from the dazzling feat of chemistry Common and Latifah are sweating to pull off. Instead of plugging into what might have been a sweet, game-changing moment between the couple -- involving an impromptu, late-night duet at a piano -- after almost two-dozen disorienting cuts I wound up with a mild case of the bends.
For all of her congeniality, the Queen makes an awkward supplicant; I can't imagine many viewers will be interested in watching her fade into the background for much of her own film. Yes, she gets her makeover moment (two, in fact), and her charisma, even under a mainstream muzzle, manages to bring some pretty far-out moments home. But the resolution of a romcom staple -- a man's inability to see the thing that's right in front of him -- only makes for great entertainment when we, down in the trenches, are inspired to see past it.