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It truly is a pleasure to see Queen Latifah in a starring role; the woman is good. I’ll admit, I often forget her knack of acting naturally and ability to charm her way across the screen when all I see is her doing thankless parts in Valentine’s Day or Stranger Than Fiction, both of which make you wonder why they bothered casting someone of her caliber and expense to do absolutely nothing. Her talent and constant good-natured attitude force you to pull for her character even though you know there is no way she won’t end up getting the guy. Latifah is the shining beacon of light in the otherwise obvious new entry to the romantic comedy genre, Just Wright. Writer Michael Elliot and director Sanaa Hamri have began their careers with safe projects just like this one, branching out only so far as now targeting adults, unlike fare such as Like Mike and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 respectively. If you look past the contrivances and abundance of romantic triangles involving best friends clichés, however, there still remains a decent, cute, not-so-horrible time at the movies underneath.

If I were to give Elliot any credit, it would lie in the fact that his characters are more than the usual stereotypical versions common in the genre. The love interest involved is the NBA’s best player, All-Star New Jersey Net Scott McKnight, and yet he isn’t the spoiled brat, prima donna normally seen. Instead, we are given an intelligent, down-to-earth, jazz fan that appreciates the pleasures in life he has been afforded. Ever the gentleman, he has risen from the city courts and absent father, (Phylicia Rashad comes out of nowhere to play his Mom), to form a lucrative career and not let it take control of his life. McKnight drives his own car, pumps his own gas—if he can find the tank—and always says ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes, (yes, that tidbit was shown a tad heavy-handedly). Hell, he even admits to enjoying Joni Mitchell. The biggest surprise, though, is that this guy is played by Common. I’ll say it right now, I’m a fan of the man both musically and theatrically, I’ve just become accustomed to seeing him kick butt and walk the street with a chip on his shoulder. He isn’t bad as McKnight, but he may lack a little of the range necessary to pull off the leading man in a romantic relationship. I actually think he might have been better if the role called for a dirt bag persona.

That role, however, went to the radiantly beautiful Paula Patton. The second surprisingly written part for me, Patton’s Morgan Alexander, is a by the numbers gold-digger from frame number one. She refuses to eat in public, wears full make-up and expensive dresses to attend a basketball game in the nosebleeds, and even goes so far as to pretending she volunteers with sick children to get her man. Her introduction to McKnight at his birthday party is absolutely priceless, played to perfection as she ignores him and tells Latifah’s Leslie that she just got a call and needs to go into her shelter. The joke is so good that I was the only one in the theatre to realize the ruse straight out, giving off the kind of isolated laugh amongst silence that makes people look over at you. They soon caught on though and joined in the fun. My point to all this is that she could have remained this shallow, empty shell of a person for the duration—and it does appear she will. I’ll simply say that you shouldn’t count her out, everyone has the capability to redeem his or herself and prove a soul may in fact exist somewhere inside. And, after everything Leslie has done for her friend, the noble thing actually becomes the more naturally believable move.

But the true point of Just Wright is getting the constantly relegated to ‘homegirl’ status Latifah into the arms of man-candy, basketball star Common. From the audience reaction to the sexual tension and its inevitable release, I’d say they do the job justice. Both applause and gasps following many scenes was loud and widespread throughout the collective seated. The chemistry is palpable from the start, Latifah’s Leslie knows what it is she wants—an early blind date, dream-like in its supposed success and ultimate failure, expresses this—and can disarm any man into being comfortable and giggly around her, something I wouldn’t be surprised to find out exists in her real-life persona too. She is the consummate physical therapist, though, always helping and putting the needs of her patients ahead of her own happiness. Scott McKnight and his career as a Net isn’t the only one either, although his knee is critical to the film dramatic periphery. No, she must help Morgan, her parents, (a great turn from James Pickens Jr. and a welcome change from Pam Grier and her earnest White Queen in “Smallville”), and anyone else. So, despite the feelings she knows were felt by McKnight when they met, once the gorgeous Morgan enters the frame, Leslie takes a step back as though its second nature.

As a result, you pull for this against-all-odds relationship to work out, especially since they are working and living together in order to get the star on court for the playoffs. But, while all the romance and shattered emotions depicted in their private lives is as authentic as you could hope, the basketball is not. So much is rushed and cut awkwardly, causing the viewers to go along for the ride without daring to ask questions. Why would they fire the successful physical therapist assigned to work with McKnight so quickly, only because Morgan was jealous? This is his career on the line, yet in comes Latifah—without any experience working on a professional athlete—and no one bats an eye? How about the weirdest last second, game-winning shot ever put to film? This is the climatic moment to prove whether all the hard work paid off, and it comes as a whimper, clumsily handled and oddly framed as Common lunges forward and shot-puts the three-pointer, a convenient cut showing it go in and the most unenthusiastic reaction I could imagine. I know, I know, it’s not about the basketball, (I hope you don’t want to know who wins the championship since you’ll never find out), but the romance instead. I’m just not quite sure they are as mutually exclusive as Hamri would have us believe; at least Laitfah and company do their best to get the love part right though.

Just Wright 5/10

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photography:
[1] L to R: Paula Patton, Queen Latifah and Common in JUST WRIGHT (Photo by David Lee)
[2] Common as Scott McKnight in JUST WRIGHT (Photo by David Lee)

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