Friday, November 15, 2013

The Best Man Holiday

Review by Pamela Zoslov

Before I get to the present business, I want to say this: I hate Christmas.  It's not just because I grew up in a Jewish home, where Christmas was perceived as just another anti-Semitic plot. It's because everything has to be so dumb at holiday time, especially in entertainment. Why does our local oldies radio station, for example, play nothing but Christmas music for, like, two months before the holiday? Don't they know how bad those songs are? Jingle bell rock, my ass.

One reason for all the manufactured merriment is that Christmas, appropriated from the pagan Saturnalia, comes at the darkest time of the year. It's an ineffably glum time, frigid and bleak. All the more reason to stuff your face, guzzle eggnog and watch terrible, terrible Christmas movies.

For that reason, I give Malcolm D. Lee, writer and director of BEST MAN HOLIDAY, credit for portraying Christmas as it really is: the saddest time of the year. Lee, a cousin of Spike Lee, has a penchant for serious drama that informs his comedies (ROLL BOUNCE, WELCOME HOME, ROSCOE JENKINS). THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY, a very late sequel to Lee's 1999 debut THE BEST MAN, is ostensibly a comedy, but it's really a solemn drama with some comic scenes.

The story has the original characters, a group of college friends, reuniting 15 years later for a holiday celebration at the home of Lance Sullivan (Morris Chestnut), a professional footballer and onetime best friend of Harper (Taye Diggs), the novelist who in the earlier film published a best-selling autobiographical roman a clef that scandalized his friends. More recently, Harper has had a hard time matching his early success. His publisher rejects his latest novel, suggesting that he instead write a biography of his gridiron hero friend Lance.

Harper's wife, Robin (Sanaa Lathan), is pregnant and money is scarce, so Harper ponders writing the Lance biography. After accepting a holiday invitation from Lance's wife, Mia (Monica Calhoun), Harper hesitates to ask Lance to cooperate on the bio, because the two friends clashed in the earlier movie when Harper's book revealed he had a tryst with Mia while she was dating Lance. In THE BEST MAN, Lance was a compulsive womanizer with a violent temper (just right for the NFL), but also a pious, Bible-quoting Christian. In the new movie, Lance is still spouting Scripture, but is now a devoted husband and father. Having been beat up by Lance in the earlier movie, Harper wisely tiptoes around him in this installment, subtly extracting information for use in the proposed book.

The other friends in attendance are Jordan (Nia Long), Harper's careerist pal and sort-of love interest; Jordan's solicitous white boyfriend, Brian (Eddie Cibrian); shy teacher Julian (Harold Perrineau), now a private school headmaster; Julian's sweet, ex-stripper wife, Candace (Regina Hall); Julian's domineering ex-girlfriend Shelby (Melissa De Sousa), now a vain reality TV star; and the irrepressible "Q," or Quentin, (Terrence Howard), the movie's most amusing character, still foul-mouthed and funny.

The players are an attractive mix, though it must be said that Chestnutt and Diggs both looked better with hair. Their conversations are low-key and intelligent, and the movie is free of the broad hijinks found in most holiday-reunion movies. Lee has a good ear for dialogue: the men's conversations are funny and profane, and the women's discussions are cool and fairly smart. Old grudges, resentments, rivalries and attractions are reignited, and modern technology intervenes, with a revealing YouTube video that leads to a hastily smashed smartphone and a spirited catfight between two of the women, and an iPad that causes a fresh rift between Harper and Lance.

Wounds are salved as the group unites around a major tragedy. Though the transition from comedy to sorrow is a bit jarring, the film navigates uncommon depths of grief and offers transcendence of a deeply religious kind. Lee's movies access faith in ways that are natural (or at least not as ham-fisted as with Tyler Perry.) Compared to the first movie, this one is a bit static, relying more on dialogue than action. It also leaves characters undeveloped and unexplained, relying too much on memories of the first movie, which is a decade and a half old. While production values are glossier and Lee's hand surer, one might prefer the casual, handmade quality of THE BEST MAN, as well as the presence of some amusing minor players.

The time spent with these characters, however, is not unpleasant. Compared to a juvenile, mostly Caucasian reunion comedy GROWN-UPS, the movie is a model of tasteful restraint.

Lee's mix of comedy and pathos will not be to everyone's taste, especially in a ho-ho-holiday movie, but it's different enough from the usual Christmas fodder to earn an appreciative nod. Three out of 4 stars.

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