A group of former college pals must cope with betrayals, jealousy, marital stress, embarrassing revelations, a birth, a death and even forgiveness. Not to mention one character who needs to break an all-time NFL record for yards rushing.
Well, yes, those kinds of things can happen to old friends over the course of several years or maybe even months. But how about during one long holiday weekend?
Lee pushes more melodrama into that short time frame than any movie can withstand. He thereby undermines what is at heart a sometimes poignant but other times ridiculously maudlin and contrived story about the resiliency of friendships.
Let’s back up a minute though. “The Best Man Holiday” is a Christmas holiday film, but also a sequel, nearly a decade-and-a-half later, to Lee’s first film, “The Best Man” (1999).
That popular film not only became something of a landmark in African-American cinema but served as a breakout showcase for many of its fine actors including Taye Diggs, Regina Hall, Morris Chestnut, Terence Howard and Nia Long.
In that film, the first-time writer/director focused on an edgy run-up to a wedding. It began when a Chicago-based author, Harper (Diggs), left his girlfriend Robyn (Sanaa Lathan) behind for a few days to fly to New York to serve as best man at the wedding of his pal, budding football superstar Lance (Chestnut).
Although not yet published, Harper’s own breakout novel was based on many of the people in the writer’s life, many who will show at the wedding. Plus it gives away the fact that he once slept with Lance’s bride, Mia (Monica Calhoun). Awkward.
Along with getting romantically ambushed by Jordan (Long), a long-ago flame that never quite ignited, Harper meets up with Murch (Harold Perrineau), a lawyer who wants to teach, and Quentin (Terrence Howard), a man who never really grew up.
While Lance went ahead and did marry Mia, with whom he now has four children, he clearly never forgave Harper for his indiscretions. In fact, some fifteen years later, these friends have never even enjoyed a reunion. Too much water under the bridge apparently. Until now of course.
Mia insists that she wants the Christmas present of a reunion and Lance, a star pro football running back, must acquiesce. That doesn’t mean he won’t frown entire time, however.
So the film has the tricky task of re-introducing all these characters to audiences not necessarily familiar with the original film while also updating everyone’s resume.
Harper and Robyn are about to have their first child, after many pregnancy failures, just as his writing career has taken a dive. Harper needs a book he can easily sell and the thought gets planted in his head that maybe Lance, who’s about to retire, would be up for an as-told-to autobiography.
Shelby (Melissa De Sousa), dumped by Murch for exotic dancer Candy (Hall), is now a popular “celebrity” on a housewives reality TV show. And Murch, happily married to Candace — notice the slight name change — runs a charter school with his wife.
New to the group is Jordan’s boyfriend Brian (Eddie Cibrian), who is — oops, now everyone is embarrassed — white! Lee gets him offstage as soon as possible and that more or less ends the film’s racial humor.
The movie settles into Lance and Mia’s dazzling mansion outside New York. The luxury digs certainly befit a pro football star except for one minor detail: NFL players almost always own single story homes since knee problems are a constant grief especially for running backs.
Everyone enters the mansion with a dramatic issue that throws all the characters into constant conflict with one another. Lee relies far too often on electronic devices such as cell phones and tablets for humiliating disclosure about indiscretions, crises and further betrayals in the lives of his troubled characters. Could he think of nothing else?
Anyway it all screams comedy if not farce, with Shelby thrusting her ample chest at every male and Candy’s semi-lurid past catching up with her. Then Lee lowers the melodramatic boom.
To get into any of that would be the ultimate plot spoiler but suffice it to say most of the final half of the movie takes a gravely serious tone, so much so that when Lee reverts to comedy it rings false — if not in poor taste.
Lee navigates these tonal sifts as best he can but why he, as the writer after all, insisted on putting them into play in the first place is a puzzle. “The Best Man Holiday” is either a comedy loaded with too much grief or a tough drama punctuated with off-kilter gags.
The script also beats up on several of its characters with surprising frequency. Poor Harper is forever having to explain his actions while Shelby comes off as a cartoon version of the trashy women on those “Real Housewives” programs.
Lance is such a sour-puss for the whole movie that you don’t even feel like rooting for him to get the rushing record. Besides, what player can take most of a week off before a huge final game and then actually threaten not to show up for work? What world does this movie take place in?
The characters Lee treated so deftly in the original film seem like angry, frustrated shadows of their former selves. That may actually have made a good place to start with a 15-year sequel.
But instead these frustrations seem like a devise to create more conflict rather than a reaction to the disappointments time can visit on everyone. Every now and then a fight breaks out — literally a fight — that never feels the least bit believable.
In the end, the movie is juggling too many characters, phony conflicts and melodrama, all the while looking for jokes that play against the drama. The film jolts through misfire after misfire while rushing past very real issues about faith and family that Lee seemingly wants to investigate.
Maybe at the next “Best Man” reunion he’ll work these things out.
Opens: November 15, 2013 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: A Blackmaled/Sean Daniel Co.
Cast: Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs, Regina Hall, Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Harold Perrineau, Monica Calhoun, Melissa De Sousa, Eddie Cibrian, John Michael Higgins
Director/screenwriter: Malcolm D. Lee
Producer: Sean Daniel, Malcolm D. Lee
Executive producer: Preston Holmes
Director of photography: Greg Gardiner
Production designer: Keith Brian Burns
Music: Stanley Clarke
Costume designer: Danielle Hollowell
Editor: Paul Millspaugh
R rating, 123 minutes