Eva (Gabrielle Union) first appears in Deliver Us From Eva looking fierce. The camera pans across faces in a church pew, folks attending a funeral, and then pauses on hers: forbidding and focused. At this moment, narrator Ray (LL Cool J) explains who she is: the woman who caused his death.
Before you get to feeling too sorry for poor LL, consider that this is the first scene in a romantic comedy co-written and directed by Gary Hardwick (the man who made The Brothers). This means that the rumor of Ray’s death will be exaggerated, and that this fierce and intimidating girl will be tamed (as in “shrew”). Deliver Us From Eva, in other words, is predictable in the way that, say, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, also opening this weekend, is predictable. The journey to hetero-coupledom will be slightly rocky, but it will be completed; the coupled members will feel better for it and so will you.
This journey begins with an introduction to Eva Dandridge. Beautiful, demanding, and self-confident, she inspires women (in particular, her three sisters) and terrifies men. Apparently, she’s so intimidating that the three men involved with the Dandridge sisters — Kareenah (Essence Atkins), Bethany (Robinne Lee), and Jacqui (Meagan Good) — decide they must resort to extreme measures to contain her.
Eva has her reasons, initially hinted at, then recalled at film’s end as a kind of she’s-not-so-bad-after-all rationale for her dominance. Following a car accident that killed their parents, 18-year-old Eva looked after her three younger sisters: this made her hard-eyed, ball-busting, and practical-minded; it also added to what appears to be an already very low tolerance for error or fooling around. After completing school and some waitressing gigs, she found her calling: health inspector. Principled. Uncompromising. Scary. When Eva walks into a kitchen and snaps on her white rubber gloves, everyone quakes.
Such diligence and dedication would be fine except that Eva’s tendency to dictate doesn’t stop there. The sisters’ men — Mike (Duane Martin), Tim (Mel Jackson), and Darrell (Dartanyan Edmonds) — are watching the NFL playoffs on a big screen tv. Oh no, it’s Book Club Night, and the girls have raw vegetables and need to talk about Beloved. And after discussing the book, Eva informs the men, they need to watch the video. So the men, for all their feeble protesting and even one attempt to put a foot down, are sent off to the nearest bar with a big screen, where they’re too short to get a good view of the game. Truly, a bad situation.
After much agonizing over the ways she takes up her sisters’ time and energy, instructs them in their romantic affairs, and passes judgments on their men, said men decide to call in a big gun: Ray. A much-experienced and much-respected player who fully believes in the lothario’s credo (“Players first, women second”), he’s also broke enough that he’s willing to date Eva for money (this owing not to his lack of ambition or talent, but to the fact that he never wants to stay with any job for more than a year: something to do with spreading his love).
When the guys approach Ray, he’s wary. They whip out a photo, Eva glowering: “She’s cute,” he offers, “But why’s she scowling?” That, says Mike, is her “sexy smirk.” Oh no doubt, they all agree, this girl is something else. Ray only takes the deal when, during one of his temporary jobs — delivering meat — he spots her on the job. This scene stages the film’s general dynamic, that is, Ray watches Eva through stacks of meat and carts, and she performs. Her routine is dramatic, the restaurant owner begs for a little leeway. No way. “Mama says,” she bellows at the end of her tirade, “Clean it up!” Ray smiles, hidden behind the meat. He’s in.
In these she’s-such-a-bitch scenes — which include a flashback to a former boyfriend-wannabe in total meltdown — Gabrielle Union reveals a completely wonderful comic timing, delivering lengthy putdown barrages with deadly aim. And she’s fearless in her self-presentation: when she leads the church choir, she gyrates and grimaces with a winning aplomb. Luckily, Union’s jazz is matched by LL Cool J’s torso. And, he can act too, always helpful.
When Ray asks Eva why she doesn’t have a man, she answers with a challenge: “Because I know the one thing that scares men to death. I know the truth.” And that is: men are afraid to be sincere and respectful of women who know what they want. (Guess he’ll have to show her.) When they go on a first (disastrous) date, riding in his meat truck, they share an adorable moment singing along with “Sweet Thing” on the meat truck radio. This alone suggests that they will eventually come together. That this resolution will involve compromise on both sides makes it that much sweeter.
The film’s mechanics are undeniably creaky: the supporting characters do their aggravating duty, including the requisite gay hairdresser and boisterous you-go girlfriend (Kim Whitley) down at the hair salon where Beth works. The others serve only to boost the principals: the sisters are forgettable and the men are so flexible they make Ray, also pretty flexible himself, look relatively macho (Tim wants a baby, Darrell just likes to “cuddle,” and Mike, the only one not married to his girl, wants to move in, but meditating Beth feels they aren’t yet “spiritually” in tune).
And the script, by James Iver Mattson, B.E. Brauner, and Hardwick, hits the usual turns, with little in the way of innovation: there’s a horseback riding scene (Eva’s test of her man), a dress-up for a major function scene, a restaurant scene (the twist being that Eva won’t eat there for fear of being poisoned), the inevitable confession scene, and the makeup scene where the couple is applauded by a crowd of anonymous onlookers, on a sidewalk, no less. (Can someone please make a romantic comedy that doesn’t end with this scene?)
But while such conventions are generally draggy, they also identify something specific about this movie. Like Brown Sugar, Deliver Us From Eva uses these conventions to reorient them to another cultural moment and set of interests. Where previously, such general dragginess has been owned by the white romantic comedy, now, black characters can behave in equally culturally overdetermined ways. And, LL Cool J changes his life to win his woman, also always helpful.