You can’t not like Dwight Howard. Whether pitching phones with Charles Barkley or mimicking Stan van Gundy, the guy is excellent, a straight-up charmer, all broad smiles, broader shoulders, and genuine good humor. So, when Dwight Howard walks into a scene in Just Wright, stopping by to visit his fictional NBA buddy Scott McKnight (Common), you’re thinking, “Cool.” But then, the boys start talking, and alas, it’s not so cool after all.
The problem for this scene—like so many others in the movie—is that plot gets in the way of everything else, from relationships to rhythms. Here the plot drives the dialogue, as Dwight Howard smiles, asks Scott how’s he’s healing up from his injury, smiles again, then delivers the plot point that he’s here to make: “There’s a rumor going around the Nets aren’t going to re-sign you.” Errk. Scott looks mad, Dwight Howard looks sad, and with that, the scene’s done.
Lucky for Scott, and the rest of us, he has a magnificent physical therapist, Leslie Wright (Queen Latifah). And when she walks into a scene, no matter how awful the dialogue and preposterous the plot, she’s delightful. This means she very nearly overcomes her setup, which is that she’s working with Scott, the best player on her favorite team, because his fiancée, Morgan (Paula Patton), sees him with a previous therapist (blond and prone to stroking his thigh) and worries. Yes, Leslie is actually a very good therapist (as the plot demands) and yes, Scott actually does appreciate her deep knowledge of all things basketball and in particular, all things Nets and Scott McKnight. But really, she has the gig because she’s excellent. You know, like Dwight Howard, but with more practice acting.
Leslie’s excellence does stop short of allowing her to recognize some very predictable problems. Per formula, her blindness is a function of her goodness, signaled by the usual cues: she’s a tomboy, a good teammate (her work friends dote on her for a couple of one-minute scenes, so you can see this), a daddy’s girl (her father Lloyd [James Pickens Jr.] has taught her all about cars and carpentry), and loving owner of a beat-up vintage Mustang named Eleanor. Not to mention, a loyal Nets fan (in this vivid fantasy, that’s okay, because they’re in the finals).
She’s also loyal to Morgan, her “best friend” since childhood. Of all the movie’s contrivances, this relationship is the most egregious. In place to serve as an obstacle to Leslie’s romance with Scott, the gorgeous Morgan is a cheat and a gold-digger, and no one except Scott has any trouble seeing this. And everyone who does see it is fine with it, because everyone believes women have to trick men into marriage. Shoot, Morgan states it outright: when Leslie wonders why she spends so much time shopping and doesn’t get a job, Morgan beams, “This is my job.” And Leslie just smiles. Aw, Morgan! You’re so cute when you’re ugly.
The upshot is that Scott falls for Morgan (shorthand explanation: she lies about volunteering for a homeless shelter so he thinks she’s good as well as beautiful) and Leslie accepts this as the way of the universe.
Let’s consider what’s wrong with this scenario. Forget for a minute that Scott—held out here to be a terrific catch because he’s not only gorgeous, rich, and famous, but also smart and sensitive—is wholly idiotic when it comes to Morgan. Though he’s held off marrying for years, he’s so smitten by her performance that he proposes to Morgan within movie-minutes of meeting her, to the visible dismay of his wise mother Ella (Phylicia Rashad). Forget also that Leslie’s own mother, Janice (Pam Grier), supports Morgan over Leslie. Overlook, of course, that Morgan looks perfectly made up at every minute, even when she first wakes up after a long party-night (like the Nets, she lives in a fantasy). And no one blinks at the fact that she’s so selfish that she doesn’t notice her supposed best friend’s hurt feelings, in scene after scene.
Set aside all that. The major problem posed by Morgan is that she’s symptomatic of what’s wrong with romantic comedies. Much maligned recently, the genre has come a long way from the days when Jean Arthur and Katharine Hepburn were the smartest people in the room. Now, chick flicks demean chicks by definition. Confirming debilitating cultural stereotypes rather than using comedy to challenge them, today’s romantic comedies offer up women in need of men. Everyone in Leslie’s universe, including Leslie, believes she will only be happy if she lands a man, a goal that confirms Morgan’s odious understanding of her “job.” The difference is that Leslie’s supposed to get hers by being nice and “authentic” (read: handy with tools, plus-sized, unconventionally beautiful, etc.). This “goodness” makes Morgan’s artifice look “bad,” so that no one is upset when Scott chooses Leslie over Morgan.
Why, oh why, does anyone put up with Morgan? What makes this formula go? Why does this movie (or Sex and the City or Twilight or The Back-up Plan) pass for entertainment “for women”? Some of us would rather watch Pam Grier, Phylicia Rashad, and Queen Latifah look out for each other. Or even see Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, and Dwyane Wade act like Common can lead the Nets to a title. At least that fantasy isn’t insulting.