The three most excruciating experiences I've had at the movies in 2010 have all been romantic comedies: Leap Year, When in Rome and The Back-Up Plan. It's not that I dislike romantic comedies. I'm actually really fond of them, but I think it's safe to say that it has become Hollywood's laziest genre (horror remakes notwithstanding). So when Just Wright, starring Queen Latifah and Common, came up on my to-do list, I was not pleased. Happily, right from its first ten minutes, Just Wright had me feeling welcome and comfortable, and after twenty minutes I was effortlessly charmed.
So what's the difference? We can start with the lead character Leslie Wright (Latifah). Unlike her cohorts in the previous three movies, she's not desperate. She does not expend every fiber of her being pining for a boyfriend. (And in these movies, it's not just any boyfriend; it has to be Mr. Right.) She's not an overeager yapping puppy. She's not frantic or an uptight control freak. When she wakes up in the morning, she casually makes breakfast and goes to work. She works as a physical therapist and drives a beat-to-crap Ford Mustang. When she leaves the house, she moves with confidence, but with a slight almost imperceptible sadness. She never begs for our love. Instead, she earns it right then and there.
Or how about this? When she leaves the house, the doorknob comes off in her hand. Her father (James Pickens Jr.) is fixing up a fixer-upper house, and there's a slight hint that he may not know what he's doing. In any other movie, this setup would lead to any number of huge, pathetically desperate slapstick situations, with walls tumbling down and plumbing going awry and spraying everyone down with jets of water. (Or worse... some joke involving a broken toilet.) But in Just Wright, there's only the doorknob (OK, and some windows). It's just a small moment that allows Leslie one extra sigh -- surely there's more to life than this. Leslie's character is cemented early on during a blind date; the date goes well, but the guy ends the night with the usual "I'm just not ready" speech. Leslie has heard it before, and even finishes the guy's sentences. But she takes it well, with that tiny hint of sadness still there, kept almost just out of sight.
Then there's the movie's villain, who isn't really a villain. She's Leslie's god-sister, the smokin' hot Morgan (Paula Patton, the teacher in Precious). Leslie and Morgan genuinely get along, even though Leslie sometimes sighs and shakes her head. Morgan's ambition in life is to marry an NBA player and retire in style, enjoying shopping, living in a mansion and her courtside "player's wife" seats. Leslie is a die-hard New Jersey Nets fan, and the sisters attend a game against the Orlando Magic. The Nets' star player is Scott McKnight (Common), who is a top point-getter via slam-dunks, free throws and even three-pointers. Director Sanaa Hamri (Something New, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2) speeds up her basketball footage, possibly because Common, who stands 6'1", looks a little short out there. Regardless, the footage feels authentic, and Common passes the test. (Some real players, like the Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade, make little cameos.)
Anyway, Scott runs into Leslie after the game, and they make a friendly connection. He invites her to his birthday party, and Morgan tags along. Morgan puts all the right moves on Scott and wins him over. Hamri gives us a "dating" montage in which Morgan looks great in magazine spreads and climbing into limos. Unfortunately Scott injures his knee during the all-star game; this comes at the worst possible time, since his ten-year contract with the Nets is almost up, and his team begins weighing the possibility of not re-signing him. Morgan smells trouble and bolts, but not before Leslie is hired to be Scott's tough-love physical therapist.
So, yes, Morgan is selfish, but she never does anything deliberately evil or malicious -- she's not one dimensional -- and Leslie always accepts her with a hug, no matter how cruel the circumstances. Another plus is that the movie does away with the "best friend" character(s) who spend all their time worrying about the heroine and her dating status. For that, we have Leslie's mom (Pam Grier), who -- really -- just behaves like a regular mom. Scott, on the other hand, is probably a bit too perfect. He's an NBA star with a huge house and tons of money and good looks. He's really nice and polite and likes jazz music. He even drives his own car and pumps his own gas. Fame has presumably not gone to his head. Yet he's in his 30s and he's a bachelor? Hmm.
That's a small issue, though. Common and Latifah generate some real chemistry onscreen, especially during their training/recovery sequences. Hamri keeps them isolated from other characters, and relaxed in each other's presence. (In one very nice, sweet little sequence, Leslie comes down with a cold and Scott must take care of her for a change.) Blessedly, there's no lie waiting to be unraveled, and the only other shoe waiting to drop is Morgan. Hamri lets her tone get a little slow and soggy during the last 20 minutes, but she has already won us over, so she's forgiven. Hamri has grown more and more confident over her last three pictures, and she has learned to calmly focus on characters and small moments. She has created an easygoing atmosphere, without the aid of sledgehammers and pratfalls, in which characters can fall sweetly in love.