Not Exactly Just Wright

Why the romantic comedy starring Queen Latifah and Common is an exercise in missed opportunities.

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Queen Latifah and Common (David Lee, Fox Searchlight)

Of late, contemporary black cinema is sorely lacking a crucial compoment  in its ever-emerging canon: The romantic comedy, filled with snappy one-liners, hot and hunky love interests, meet-cute-then-break-up-to-make-up scenarios, all's-well-that-ends-well finales.  We need more love and romance and optimistic endings that celebrate black amour.

So it's about time that we were treated to, say, another Love & Basketball, or a Brown Sugar, or better yet, a Love Jones. (And sorry, but anything coming from Tyler Perry's misogynistic oeuvre does not count.) There's been far too much Sturm und Drang lately about the allegedly sorry state of the Single Black Woman, pop culture's current bogeywoman. (Case in point: Steve Harvey's blockbuster book Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man may be coming soon to a screen near you.) We need something funny and happy and sharp and smart.

Just Wright, starring Queen Latifah and Common, is not that movie. Yes, it is happy, and yes, it is on occasion, funny, but it is neither sharp nor smart. It starts out amusingly enough, but then quickly wears out its welcome, plodding along from predictable plot point to predictable plot point until it finally-thankfully--thuds to its inevitable conclusion: The happy ending. Suffice it to say that Latifah gets her man. But then, looking at the promo poster, you already knew that.

At first blush, Just Wright should be a winner: It stars the appealingly earthy Latifah, who plays Leslie Wright, a cheerfully zaftig physical trainer who's sorta, kinda, looking for love. Except that love is playing a serious game of hide and seek. Leslie finds herself going on blind dates that each start out promisingly enough, until the date inevitably blows her off with a "You the bomb dot com, but...." In short, men want her to be their homegirl, but not their girl-girl. Why? Is it because Leslie's a plus-size woman in a sample sized world? Is it because she wears sweats instead of slinky stuff? Or is it because, complexion-wise, compared to Morgan (Paula Patton), her Halle Berry-lookalike godsister, Leslie's on the dark side of caramel? It's never spelled out, because the filmmakers (director Sanaa Hamri and writer Michael Elliot) never really go there. Instead, they keep things blandly safe and PG-rated, obliquely implying instead of delving a little more deeply into issues of colorism and size-ism. Which is too bad, because if they'd dared to explore and expose, Just Wright would have made for a much more interesting movie.

And so, rather than interesting and complex, we get pre-fab rom-com fare: Leslie's a Jersey girl who loves basketball, vintage Mustangs (read: beaters), old houses (read: fixer-uppers) and the New Jersey Nets. She meets Scott McKnight (Common), a soulful basketball who plays for the Nets. Scott invites her to his birthday party, where he promptly falls for the gold-digging Morgan, who's all about snaring a big-ticket baller with subterfuge and cunning. ("You're not supposed to show him your regular girl self 'til you've been married for at least five years," Morgan tells Leslie.) Scott then injures himself on the court and Leslie, the sports injury specialist, is brought in to save the day, and his career. From there, all sorts of misunderstandings and romantic hijinks occur: Love, meet triangle.

And then there's Common, poor Common. Common should be black cinema's leading man: He's got the looks, and in action flicks like Smokin' Aces and Street Kings, he's demonstrated that he's got the charisma to make the transition from music video to full-length feature. But here, none of that charisma is on display. Instead, he's wooden and dull, reciting his lines like he's rapping lyrics. And up against the pro ball players in the film-Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Rarshard Lewis-Common is unconvincing, looking under-sized and less than compelling. It pains me to say it, but there it is.

So Just Wright is an exercise in missed opportunities. Sure it looks good, filled with pretty people and pretty houses, all cast in a hazy gold light. And it's directed by Hamri, who with Something New, demonstrated that she knows how to handle a rom-com. But it wastes the talents of its cast, from Latifah to Phylicia Rashad to James Pickens, Jr. to Pam Grier. And there's nothing Just Wright about that.

Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM