Something New

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/02/06 20:12:14

"Sanaa Lathan: the new queen of movie romance."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

There’s something very special in what Sanaa Lathan does with her performance in “Something New.” She takes a character that, as written, is reliant on cliché and familiarity, and she makes her feel so very real. Lathan never seems like a movie character here; instead, she’s someone you’re certain you could meet in real life. Perhaps you already have. This is a lovely performance in a surprisingly lovely film.

The key to the film is found in the details. This is a screenplay that paints in broad strokes - the writer, Kriss Turner, is a sitcom veteran making her feature debut, and the plot has all the markings of a formula work: the successful Kenya (Lathan) has no time for love, but falls for white boy landscaper Brian (Simon Baker), with racial tensions following from friends and family. We even get the obligatory break-up, with a new man (Blair Underwood) promising to steal her away, but can she forget her true love? Toss in one final “go get him!” scene, and “Something New” sounds more or less exactly like every other romance ever created.

But then come the details. Hidden within the broad strokes are the smaller touches that make this film work. Some of these little moments come from the screenplay: there’s a great moment where Brian, trying to be hip with Kenya’s friends, embarrassingly starts asking about the “black tax,” not realizing that being hip is the last thing he needs to try. Then there’s the little running gag that finds Kenya’s brother (Donald Faison) always popping up with a new trophy girlfriend by his side. Or the notion that Kenya’s mother (Alfre Woodard) refers to her husband not by his first name, but as “Dr. McQueen” - says so much about a character by saying so little.

More, though, are the little touches brought on by the cast and director Sanaa Hamri (touches which may or may not have been in the script, so I’ll just credit everyone). This is a movie that finds joy not just in the main event, but in the small things that happen around it. Watch as Kenya and Brian argue in public; the looks from those around them are priceless.

Or what of the dinner scene with Kenya’s new man? At first I was shocked to see a romantic comedy such as this provide us with a Baxter that is not a chump, not a jerk, but a guy actually worthy of the leading lady’s attentions. Sure made things interesting indeed (how is dopey white boy possibly supposed to compete with the smooth likes of Blair Underwood?). But then, as this charming fellow is invited to dine with Kenya’s family, we see it: dude reaches over with his fork and nonchalantly steals a bite of Kenya’s dinner.

The story makes no mention of this. The characters make no reaction to this. It is not important in any way to the forwarding of the plot. And yet it happens - because of course it would happen. This guy is, quite simply, someone who in real life would find no problem with mooching your dinner. And when things begin to go sour between the characters, we in the audience just sit back and yell, “Girl, he took your dinner. You should’ve seen it coming.”

It’s these little things that help push the movie through. It has its share of problems on the script level - not just for its familiar structure (take out the race commentary, and on the surface, this could be every other romance movie you’ve seen), but for its bumps in the story layout. There’s a whole subplot about Kenya’s three girlfriends who pop in to provide advice. But we really don’t need this; one of these girlfriends (Wendy Raquel Robinson) is Kenya’s close friend who shows up in several extra scenes, providing a shoulder to cry on. All of the girlfriends’ scenes could have been simplified, their lines given to just this one character. As it stands, the girlfriends’ plotline keeps feeling like it’s going to go somewhere, but it doesn’t.

Indeed, there’s a lot of clutter in this film. The whole mess about Kenya’s mother being snobbish in her sophistication - to the point where we actually get a line about how Kenya’s embarrassing the family, and in front of high society, too - feels a bit forced, like it’s here by obligation only. Yet another subplot, about Kenya’s chances of becoming partner at her banking firm, fares better, but it too feels a smidge extraneous, its commentary on race issues that get handled more sharply in other scenes.

And yet these are problems that one is willing to forgive, for in the end, we care only about the romance, which is sweet and charming and so very wonderful. The hiccups of the story and the delicate touches of the direction balance each other out, leaving us to focus on Lathan’s fantastic performance. Here is an actor who takes lines that are, quite honestly, too “written” and makes them flow with delicate ease. She takes this character and breathes life into her. We cheer for Kenya’s romantic liberation because Lathan makes it all so very real. Lathan has long been the saving grace of many a movie (“Love & Basketball,” “Brown Sugar”) that might have collapsed without her, and now, with “Something New,” she proves herself to be a master of the romantic lead. I loved every minute she was on the screen.

It doesn’t hurt that Baker (best known for roles in “Land of the Dead” and “The Ring Two”) is a natural charmer himself; the duo lights up the screen, the chemistry between them evident in every frame. (Just watch the early scenes of flirtation between the two. This is a great screen couple.) And Hamri, so careful with the little moments, also knows how to heat things up, the love scenes between Kenya and Brian sizzle in all the right ways.

“Something New” is, above all, a smart film, a romance that escapes its familiar trappings by emphasizing the personal, by underplaying what might have been too much, by letting the performers shine. It is a warm, friendly movie, smooth and sensual in all the right ways. It has things to say about race, yes, but it would prefer to instead say things about the human heart. What a wonderful surprise of a film.

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