It would be hard to come up with a couple who seem like a better fit than Zora Banks (Sanaa Lathan) and Franklin Swift (Wesley Snipes). Both are beautiful and gifted, ambitious and passionate. She’s an aspiring and talented singer-songwriter, he’s an accomplished, if yet unlicensed, woodworker. They meet cute as she’s moving into a Brooklyn brownstone apartment where he’s just laid down the gorgeous hardwood floor. He helps her move her furniture and boxes of CDs and books inside, they share conversation and flirtatious glances. You can almost feel the erotic tension.
So begins Disappearing Acts, a movie that—you can’t help but know if you’re reasonably conscious—is based on a novel by Terry McMillan. This means, of course, that the relationship is both fated to be and fated to undergo many trials and tribulations: McMillan’s work explores the ways that painfully imperfect and dizzingly wonderful relationships arise between people who appear to fit. Like many McMillan heroines, Zora (named after Zora Neale Hurston, she graciously informs us almost as soon as we meet her) is a fiercely determined and resolutely independent survivor, hoping to find a man who will meet her high standards but not especially convinced that she will. Franklin, like many McMillan heroes, is a good-hearted man who’s been beaten down by any number of systems set against him. When they meet, Zora is teaching music at an elementary school while she puts together enough material to make her own record. Franklin has found his calling—renovating brownstones—but at the moment is still scraping by. He has yet to get his GED so that he can take the test to become a licensed contractor, and so he has settled for working on non-union crews from which he can be dropped without notice (the film’s primary embodiment of this problem is a guy named—rather unimaginatively—Vinney, played by the talented but typecast Michael Imperioli). Zora and Franklin share a love for Chinese food, Scrabble, and music. In other words, it’s ordained in Terry McMillan’s universe that they get together, which they do, almost immediately. They spend the next two hours trying to stay together.
While both Zora and Franklin agree that art and integrity are more important than money (he informs her, “If you’re looking for a brother with a fat bank account, I ain’t the one”), they also must contend with basic pressures—paying rent, for instance. The film’s episodic structure lays out a series of these pressures alongside the characters’ unspoken but quite evident fears, in terms both metaphorical and literal. For one instance, Franklin’s parents (CCH Pounder and John Amos, whose appearances are far too fleeting here), provide a momentary point of tension, when Franklin and Zora go to visit and they judge their son harshly. Zora’s attempts to smooth over the rough spot only aggravate a longstanding familial ugliness that the movie does not explore further.
But the most obvious example of the film’s stiltedness comes one night when Franklin is awakened by Zora having an epileptic fit: though she has neglected to tell him about her condition, he’s quite able to deal with it. While the scene showing the seizure is wrenching, the aftermath is puzzlingly abrupt. When Zora wakes in the morning, looking unusually bedraggled, Franklin asks her why she didn’t tell him and she admits that she’s afraid he would have left her if she had. He rightly points out that he’s still there with her, and she seems comforted by that fact. From there, the film never refers to her epilepsy again—even though she goes on to become pregnant, give birth, and cope with being a working mother—making it the most flagrant of the film’s telegraphic devices, but not the only one. This isn’t to say that the movie must deal with the condition “disease of the week”-style, by making it a tragic focus. Rather, its metaphorical function—to demonstrate that the seemingly unstoppable Zora has a “weakness”—is made awkward by its lack of integration into the rest of the plot.
This plot comes to revolve around the couple’s troubles with money—it becomes an emblem and manifestation of Zora and Franklin’s mutual and separate fears. She finds a producer, Reg Baptiste (Kamaal Fareed, a.k.a. Q-Tip), who is willing to cut a demo with her, for a minimal fee if she promises she will always be available when he can fit her in to his schedule, her day job (and eventual pregnancy) notwithstanding—as soon as she makes it, you know it’s an unkeep-able promise. Franklin’s pitfalls are more immediate: it turns out that he has two sons who live with their mother, to whom he sends informal child support—in other words, he’s no deadbeat, but he is always short of cash. Also wanting to meet the relatively higher living standards he sees embodied by Zora, poor Franklin is depressed and burdened by long-term expectations, which makes it hard for him to make healthy decisions. When he’s upset, he heads to the bar where he commiserates with his buddy Jimmy (the underused Clark Johnson, who played Meldrick on Homicide: Life on the Streets); in times of emotional need, she turns to her girls Portia (Regina Hall) and Claudette (Lisa Arrindell Anderson), both of whom live upscale lives that only underline the diurnal difficulties of Zora and Franklin’s scraping by. And oh yes, Franklin’s drinking becomes an issue, as his anger and frustration become more physical when he’s had too much.
This plot, however unsurprising, provides a means for Lathan and Snipes to show what they can do. The characters have more than enough ordeals to endure, together and apart, which makes the film something of a melodramatic roller-coaster. Still, it is elegantly directed by Gina Prince Blythewood, with whom Lathan worked on Love & Basketball, and effectively scored by Meshell NdegeOcello, and comes with a made-to-sell compiled soundtrack, with songs by Angie Stone, Talib Kweli, Melky Sedeck, and Chaka Khan. And the stars are working such subtle nerves, so well, it’s as if they’re in a more carefully structured film—if the paths of Franklin and Zora are preordained, the pleasures Snipes and Lathan afford viewers are plentiful.