The Best Man (1999)

The Best ManStarring Taye Diggs, Nia Long,  Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau Jr., Terrence Dashon Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Monica Calhoun.
Written by Malcolm Lee.
Directed by Malcolm Lee.

Grade: B

Review by Jeff Vorndam.

The most handsome cast this year. That’s a backhanded compliment many commentators on Malcolm Lee’s new film The Best Man have levied. The implication is that pretty faces preclude serious roles and quality work. The Best Man is a romantic comedy, but it’s a small cut above the usual fare in the genre. It takes a few stabs at exploring gender perspectives on relationships before settling into a conventional finale. It’s ultimately too eager to please and too enamoured with its characters to make a lasting impression, but it is an entertaining diversion and should make a nice rental.

Director Malcolm Lee wanted his first feature to be a somewhat of a male-centered “answer” to recent female-targeted films like Waiting to Exhale. In these films, men are invariably portrayed as shiftless or commitment shy, and the good ones are unavailable (married or gay). Most romantic comedies, especially ones that involve weddings, are also aimed at the female demographic. In an effort to make a more universally appealing movie, Lee reaches out to both genders with the story of a writer (Taye Diggs) who comes to terms with some relationship issues over the course of a weekend during which he is the best man at his friend’s wedding. In addition to be cross-gender appealing, The Best Man chooses not to dwell in a particularly African-American perspective, despite its all-black cast. It’s a movie about a group of friends who just happen to be black; the idea is that these themes apply to everyone. Taye Diggs and Nia Long

Taye Diggs plays Harper Stewart, a young man who’s about to hit the big time professionally. His debut novel, ominously titled “Unfinished Business,” has been selected by Oprah’s book of the month club. He has a beautiful and devoted girlfriend Robin (Sanaa Lathan), and his best friend Lance (Morris Chestnut)  is getting married this weekend. Like all the characters in this film, Harper and Robin are lovely photographed, especially in their initial introduction. With tender soft-focus close-ups and longing gazes at their physical features, the camera gives the audience ample opportunity to lap up the characters and take their side. In an early scene with Harper and Robin lounging in a tub wearing nothing but bubbles (I think some of the ladies next to me in the theater fainted during this part), it becomes clear that all is not well in the world of Harper. Robin merely sighs contentedly and idly mentions that she could stay like this forever. If The Best Man were a cartoon, tombstones would have appeared in Harper’s widened eyes as he hears this information and immediately begins assessing the long-term impact of it. For Harper, life is just beginning, and he feels that committing to a woman now that he’s on the verge of success would be a death-knell for him. He might as well just drive a Buick and start telling kids to get the hell off his lawn.

To complicate matters further, Harper’s new book, which is autobiographical, has fallen into the wrong hands. Jordan (Nia Long), an old woulda-coulda-shoulda flame of Harper’s, has read an advance copy that seems to be working its way through Harper’s inner circle, coincidentally the other members of the wedding party. In the novel are several unsavory fictionalized characterizations of Harper’s real-life friends. These friends all take it in good stride when they talk to Harper face-to-face, but their hurt causes at least one of them to want to teach Harper a lesson. Jordan learns that Harper’s book is unabashedly flattering in its portrayal of a character based on her, however, and she decides to test the waters with Harper at this vulnerable stage. Taye Diggs and  Terrence Dashon Howard

The best scene in the film is perhaps a set-piece around a poker table, as the four guys in the wedding party talk shop about men, women, and relationships in light of Lance’s marriage and his faith in his fiancée’s fidelity. Among the topics of discussion is the seeming paradox facing many young up-and-coming men: they want a woman they can take care of, one that relies on them to provide rather than outearning or outstripping them professionally, but at the same time anyone who relies on them too much is seen as a golddigger, just after a man for his money. Lee gives this scene the right mixture of easy-going banter and portentous indignation that reveal the attitudes not just of the four men but of a lot of men in general. The dialogue is well written and flows smoothly from person to person; it doesn’t feel like a talky sidebar.

The film eventually falters as we approach the wedding. The drama overtakes the comedy, and it’s not handled as deftly, verging on melodrama and its conventions of last-ditch rescue efforts and strained credulity. Though reverting to formula in the denouement (after all, Harper must have his come-uppance and redeem himself), the film still retains enough charm to keep from sinking too low. Morris Chestnut delivers a moving wedding vow, and the entire cast doing the Electric Slide at the end was a nice touch.

Although its trappings are unconventional within the romantic comedy format, the film barely won me over. I attest its resilience to the strong ensemble acting. Taye Diggs has the making of a big star. Nia Long more than holds her own with all the men in the picture. Morris Chestnut, playing another jock like he did in Boyz N The Hood, effectively evinces the violence he is capable of, as well as the heart he has. Perhaps stealing the show, though, is Terrence Dashon Howard, the ne’er-do-well who escalates the story’s action and provides much of the comic relief with his barbed but trenchant observations. His final scene takes place after the credits, and is worth sticking around for.

Review © November 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Universal Studios.

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