Queen Latifah, Common, Mehcad Brooks, Pam Grier, Paula Patton, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade
(Fox Searchlight Pictures; US theatrical: 14 May 2010; UK theatrical: 14 May 2010; 2010)
Romantic Comedies have gotten so bad as of late that when one comes along that doesn’t completely insult your intelligence or make you want to gouge your eyes out, it’s something to celebrate. Granted, it can still be insufferable, but the pain is far less intense. Leave it to the underserved African American demographic to demand more from their formulaic movies than meet-cute conceits, clichéd caricature protagonists, and humor as funny as a bout of malaria. With rappers Queen Latifah and Common in tow, Just Wright transcends the contemporary traps of the genre to be engaging, earnest, and slightly endearing. It’s not perfect, but when compared with the rest of its stale and stupid cinematic brethren, it’s practically disco.
Leslie Wright is the head physical therapist at a Manhattan clinic. She’s in her mid 30s, takes good care of her father, mother, and golddigging god-sister Morgan, and absolutely loves basketball. The sport is her whole life. When she accidentally runs into Scott McKnight, star player for local faves the New Jersey Nets, he’s impressed with her down to earth style. He invites her to a big party, and she brings Morgan along for moral support. Besides, her gal pal has been plotting to become a NBA player’s wife for most of her life. Naturally, Leslie loses out and Scott starts dating her friend. Before long, they are engaged. But when a serious injury threatens his career, Morgan moves out and Leslie steps in as a recommended live-in personal trainer. Her goal - get him ready for a run at the Championship. Naturally, sparks fly and love begins to blossom. But when Morgan reenters the picture, it tests the feelings of everyone involved.
Let’s get one thing straight right up front - Just Wright is pure fantasy, no doubt about it. No, not because Common’s NBA star would sacrifice a smoking hot trophy wife for a home girl with his Momma’s sense of caring and comfort. Also out of the running are Leslie Wright’s abilities as a sports therapist. Just because she looks like a party planner doesn’t mean she can’t rehabilitate a strained ACL. Dismiss the “aw sucks” camaraderie as displayed by real life David Stern subjects Dwayne Wade and Dwight Howard. These men are professionals, not puppets to support a musician’s need for guaranteed ‘game’. No, where this movie makes its biggest leap of fictional faith is in having the New Jersey Nets, owners of 2010’s worst record in basketball, becoming powerhouse playoff contenders. If you can suspend that particular skyscraper of disbelief, you’ll swallow the rest of this pleasant pap without issue.
Directing novice Sanaa Hamri does go overboard with the music montages, using every training session and passage of time as a reason to cut film to a beat. Her tenure as a top MTV video guide does help her through the sonic sideshow, but one would have been more than plenty. Similarly, although she’s lensed such efforts as Something New and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, she still has a long way to go in building character and drama. Most of the heavy personality lifting is left to Latifah and Common, and both seem more than capable of creating sparks. Chemistry is important here, and while not scorching or even hot, our leads do come across as having a certain level of mutual admiration and love. Where no bounce exists is between our “playa” and his supermodel-lite intended. Paula Patton was very good in last year’s Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, but she’s nothing but empty eye candy here.
The story also sacrifices itself at the alter of awkwardness one too many times. McKnight is seen as a lynchpin on his team, a vital 6’,1” part of a program that would be nothing without him - and yet he’s smack dab in the middle of contract renegotiation and might actually be let go? By the very organization that swears he is there savior? Similarly, Ms. Wright is so on the ball, so clearly in control of her life, that the mixed message of “needing a man” seems antithetical to what she stands for. Just like adding a wealth of real life ballers in cameo roles, purposely designed to keep itchy husbands and boyfriends in opening weekend check, the forced romance angle is offered so that those who still believe in fairytales find a reason to sit still. In fact, you can tell Just Wright wanted to be even smarter, but somewhere along the line, cooler bottom line oriented studio heads prevailed.
Still, there is something deeply satisfying about a movie that doesn’t undermine its heroes and heroines with manipulated emotion and false affections. Sure, we never really doubt that Leslie and Scott will end up together, that Morgan will see the error of her slutty ways and show a shred of common decency, or that the Nets will man up and win the title. About the only thing not taken for granted here is the need for nonstop riffing. While it is clearly a Romantic ‘Comedy’, Just Wright is far more serious than you would expect. It’s also a lot more brazen in its desire to stand out from the pack and avoid playing by the staid starlet-of-the-moment rules that ruin the format. While it manages to get to the same place in the end, it gets there in consistently interesting ways.
Besides, everything here is geared toward a group who, Tyler Perry aside, is ritualistically ignored by Hollywood. African American women rarely see themselves as strong, matriarchal decision makers in the movies. Instead, they are either wisecracking comic relief or…well, that’s about it. In Just Wright, everyone gets a fair shot - the simple and the superstar, the wealthy and the nothing but wise - and it all gets filtered through a feeling of genuineness and true insight. Sure, at the end of the day, it’s just a Romantic Comedy. Thankfully, Just Wright avoids the genre’s current reputation to be better than expected - if just barely.