Best Man: Malcolm Lee’s Impressive Debut–Reunion Tale

Well Mounted and quite engaging, The Best Man, Malcolm D. Lee’s impressive feature debut as a writer and director, represents an honorable addition to the reunion genre, still defined by John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill.

Continuing the trend that began with love jones and Hav Plenty, this serio-comic film centers on the tangled web of personal and sexual relationships among a clique of upscale, educated black friends. Likely to be labeled by some critics the black Big Chill, pic should play well with black urban viewers, but Universal faces the challenge of how to achieve crossover appeal for a story that has no white characters.

In a career-making role that’s bound to catapult him to major stardom, Taye Diggs, who was Angela Bassett’s romantic interest in How Stella Got the Groove Back, gives an enormously appealing performance, exhibiting the noble stature of the young Sidney Poitier, but also an overtly erotic charge that Poitier, due to the circumstances of his times, was never encouraged to develop. Diggs plays Harper Stewart, a handsome, ambitious writer whose first novel, “Unfinished Business,” is about to get published.

In the first reel, Harper leaves Robin (Sanaa Lathan), his new, sensitive girlfriend, behind and heads to New York to meet his old buddies and be the best man in the wedding of his pal Lance Sullivan (Morris Chestnuts), a superstar athlete, and his beautiful fianc, Mia (Monica Calhoun). First encounter is with Jordan (Nia Long), an aggressive, career-driven TV producer, who was Harper’s college roommate, and one night almost–but not quite–went to bed with him. This missed opportunity serves as a central narrative thread, adding tension to the question of whether or nor they’ll seize their last opportunity to consummate their passion while Harper is on his own.

As scripter, Lee finds interesting ways to introduce his protagonists, which include Quentin (Terrence Howard), a guitar-playing womanizer, who gets to deliver the most cynical lines; Murch (Harold Perrineau), the polite gentleman who’s too nice for his own good, particularly when socializing with his domineering g.f. Shelby (Melissa DeSousa); Candy (Regina Hall), a stripper who unexpectedly discloses a poetic streak and fatefully changes Murch’s romantic life.

Like most reunion films, Best Man deals with coming of age, specifically how youngsters are forced to embrace adulthood and the maturity and responsibility that go along with it. Not surprisingly, most of the tensions are romantic and sexual, though, it’s tribute to Lee’s deft script that he goes beyond schematic crises and stereotypical situations. Upwardly mobile and career-oriented, the characters are bright and successful, but they have gone through life without giving an account of their emotions. They also realize the need to resolve old conflicts and bring closure to open wounds.

One of the running jokes (a la Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry) is the slow, sometimes painful and sometimes hilarious, realization of all the protagonists of their resemblance to the fictional characters in Harper’s steamy novel. There are sufficient dramatic twists and comic turns to make the saga less predictable and entertaining. Lee sketches an intriguing subplot that dissects trust and fidelity, and how they impinge on the very nature of friendship.

There’s no preferential treatment of the men: the revelations and inner-turmoil motivate all the characters to grow and transform in a positive way. This is particularly the case of Harper, who begins as a role model, a desirable pro envied by his male friends and adored by the women, but as the story evolves reveals more and more weaknesses that make him a more human and flawed hero.

The narrative also echoes classic wedding films, such as Nancy Savoca’s True Love, describing the intense anxiety of last-moment preparations and applying the typical male fear of commitment and the practice of sleazy bachelor parties to an Africa-American milieu. Indeed, it’s the specific lingo (the liberty, for example, taken by blacks in using the ‘n word) and particular cultural milieu that gives Best Man its distinctive flavor and separate it from similar movies about white or Italian-American subcultures. Though there are not many overtly sexual scenes, the whole movie is charged with a healthy eroticism, which is accentuated by the fact that all the thesps are extremely attractive and seductively dressed and groomed.

The casting indicates the progression of black cinema from the drugs and violence inner-city tales of the early 1990s to the more mature, dialogue-driven tales at present. Chestnut, who gives a strong and touching rendition of a jealously aggressive yet bible-reading guy coerced to examine his double-standard ethics, was in Boyz N the Hood, and the sexy Long played the lead in love jones.

Best Man gets too preachy and reconciliatory in the last reel, and it could also benefit from a 10-minute trimming in the first hour. But overall, this smooth, glossy, and enjoyable film displays a new authorial voice at a crucial time when contempo black cinema desperately needs new kinds of stories and heroes.