Arts & Entertainment

'Just Wright' And The Rhythm Of Romance

'Just Wright' stars  Queen Latifah, rapper Common and Paula Patton.

Actors Paula Patton (left), Queen Latifah and Common star in in Just Wright. David Lee/Fox Searchlight hide caption

itoggle caption David Lee/Fox Searchlight

I've always had a weak spot for black romantic comedies.

Populated by beautiful, feisty women who deploy rapid-fire black vernacular, these movies create a playful world that bounces to the syncopated rhythms of African American idioms like jazz, hip-hop and R&B. The stories of buppie love in an urban world usually revolve around an upwardly mobile sister's "needle-in-the-haystack" quest to find her IBM (read: Ideal Black Man).

Oh ... and, let's not forget, these movies linger on the deliciousness of sexual tension bursting at the seams. Well, that's exactly how the stage is set in director Sanaa Hamri's Just Wright, a spin on love and basketball starring Queen Latifah, recording artist Common, and Paula Patton.

In the film, Common plays NBA All-Star Scotty McKnight, a chiseled basketball phenom whose warmth and sturdy sex appeal have both Leslie (Queen Latifah), a gifted physical therapist, and her childhood friend Morgan (Paula Patton), a crafty, gold-digging, NBA-wife-wanna-be, starry-eyed and smitten. During a chance meeting with Scotty at a gas station, the tomboyish Leslie helps the handsome Nets player find the gas tank on his new ride. In return, she gets a personal invite to a party at Scotty's crib.

As the ladies ready themselves to step out in style, Leslie's mom, Janice n(Pam Grier) presents a pair of good luck diamond earrings but quickly hands them to the ultra feminine Morgan, bypassing her otherwise denim-and-jersey wearing daughter. The gesture is as heartbreaking as any letdown in the movie because it captures the way parents, boyfriends and societal beauty standards convey feelings of favoritism, estimate social worth or calculate marriage market value.

At the party — which is reminiscent of an outtake from "Millionaire Matchmaker" — Leslie tries to engage Scotty in casual conversation. But before making headway, Morgan moves in with her striking Barbie doll splendor and seeming disinterest. Feigning indifference, she quickly steals his heart, making the more full-figured Leslie feel as desirable as Ugly Betty. Before long, little Miss Morgan is Scotty's "It" girl: engaged and on the celebrity page.

I've got to give Moroccan-born director Sanaa Hamri, and screenwriter Michael Elliot, credit for showing black hair some love in this film. Maybe it's a coincidence, but this is the second Hamri picture in which the romantic male lead asks his girl to remove her weave because he prefers her "real" hair. It was a request issued by Simon Baker's character Brian of Sanaa Lathan's character Kenya in Something New (2006).

And it shows up again here when Scott makes the same request of trophy-girl Morgan. Is it possible these cinematic moments-coupled with Jeff Stilson's documentary, Good Hair (2009), mean we're entering the beginning of a post-weave aesthetic in black popular culture?

Or, is this more of the same old male-identified female self-fashioning, wherein sisters subscribe to masculine standards of beauty — whatever they may be?

At this point, Just Wright takes a (predictable) wrong turn.

Scott suffers a serious knee injury during a game, bringing die-hard basketball fan and physical therapist Leslie back into his life. She recovers his game, the realism of which is owed to professional players Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Bobby Simmons, Jr., and lifts his spirit. This all happens at a moment when Morgan reveals she's a fair-weather fiancee.

But it's a bit disappointing Just Wright relied on cliches to bring these two characters together. I kind of wish the script had found more for the talented Phylicia Rashad (here playing Scott's nurturing mother, Ella), to do. It would have made perfect sense, given the film's family friendly orientation.

And, I've personally seen Rashad work miracles on stage.

To his credit, Common's first leading-man performance (he's appeared as a supporting actor in Smokin' Aces, American Gangster and Date Night-among others) is strong. He almost succeeds in making an incredible Mr. Right into a credible character: a sexy, professional athlete who's also approachable, down-to-earth, and looking for monogamy. And, Queen Latifah is always charismatic and fun to watch. But ultimately, there's something about the chemistry between La — as she's sometimes called by interviewers these days — and Common that just doesn't catch fire.

Kudos to the companies that supported the production of this film. According to Variety, the film had initially been set up seven years ago, with Latifah slated to star but Disney couldn't get the budget together. Executive producer Debra Martin Chase worked with the New Jersey Nets and companies like Cover Girl, the National Basketball Association, Izod, Nike, Under Armour, Tom Ford and Apple to get Fox Searchlight's Just Wright on screen.

There was a time when I would have criticized such blatant product placement and crass commercialism but there's just not enough financial support for smaller motion pictures in the marketplace — particularly, if they're African American oriented.

As to the question of whether or not you should go see this movie? Well, that depends on you and the extent to which you're a fan of Queen Latifah, Common, Paula Patton, love and basketball.

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