There are rules, of course, when it comes to making a rom-com. The boy must get the girl. The girl must get the boy. They will invariably "meet cute." All sorts of impediments will obstruct their exceedingly convoluted path to happily ever after; hilarity, havoc and heartbreak will ensue … you get the picture.
If the filmmakers are lucky, while they're fiddling with this age-old formula, some sort of alchemy will happen, and the result will be a When Harry Met Sally — or a Love Jones. If they stumble and add too much of one ingredient and too little of another, then, well, you're stuck with the Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Or a Just Wright.
Jumping the Broom, the latest entrée in the romantic-comedy blockbuster sweepstakes, fits into neither of those categories. It's certainly not destined to be a classic; nor will it go down in cinematic ignominy.
Starring Laz Alonso as Jason and Paula Patton as Sabrina, and directed by Salim Akil (The Game), Jumping the Broom comes in squarely in the middle of the pack. It certainly meets all of the rom-com criteria, from the cute meeting (Sabrina literally runs over Jason in her sports car) to the ensuing hilarity (two words: Mike Epps) to the obstacles blocking the way to Happyland (that would be Loretta Devine as the mother-in-law from hell).
If anything, the filmmakers focus too much on playing things by the numbers instead of letting things flow free-form at times. As soon as T.D. Jakes (one of the producers), playing a minister counseling the young couple, announces, "Even a soul mate can really test you," it's time to cue the testing. Plot, meet predictable.
Still, a good cast can overcome a myriad of shortcomings — in this case, an oft-times plodding script; an awkward marriage of a chaste, profanity-free, God-filled story and raunchy masturbation jokes; and, it must be said, Patton's over-the-top acting.
On the plus side, Jumping the Broom boasts a stellar cast, with enough talent to keep the viewer distracted: Alonso; Devine; Epps as the country cousin taking everyone down a peg; Angela Bassett as Sabrina's snotty, French-speaking mother; Tasha Smith as the reluctant cougar to a very young swain; Brian Stokes Mitchell playing the husband-dad with a secret; and Valarie Pettiford as Sabrina's peripatetic aunt, who's got an even bigger secret.
The filmmakers certainly know how to titillate: The movie opens with a close-up of Sabrina fastening her bra — from the back, that is; this movie is strictly PG. She's just had yet another one-night stand gone bad, and she's praying fervently to the woman upstairs: "I gave up the cookies for a nice body and some mediocre conversation … I don't think I can even spell 'mediocre.' " If God gets her out of this very sticky situation, she promises — promises! — she won't give up the cookies again until her wedding night.
This will, of course, be easier said than done, because in the very next scene, Sabrina meets Jason, the love of her life. Sparks fly, and soon Jason's on bended knee in front of Lincoln Center, and wait — is that El DeBarge serenading on a grand piano on the sidewalk? It's all too rushed, too breathless, too unbelievable. The car accident! The proposal! El DeBarge! At one screening, several men in the audience actually groaned out loud.
Fortunately for the viewer, the action quickly moves between Martha's Vineyard, where Sabrina's high-society family is planning the wedding to end all weddings, and Brooklyn, N.Y., where Jason's working-class mother is nursing a giant-sized grudge because she has yet to meet her baby boy's intended. And when said baby boy sends a limo and a driver to pick her up the day before the wedding — and the bride announces that she has no desire to literally jump the broom — well, it's on. Class warfare breaks out on the island, and no one emerges unscathed.
As the young lovebirds, Alonso and Patton have a sweet and believable chemistry, even though one can't help wishing that Patton would tone things down by one or six notches. But this movie belongs to the ensemble cast, who are let loose to do their thing. The laughs come quick and easy; Epps is a one-man Greek chorus ad-libbing on the follies of others.
And then there are the movie's two matrons. Facing off against each other, Bassett and Devine are formidable opponents. The insults, both passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive, fly. Devine, in particular, turns in a bravura comedic performance as the widowed mother who can't stand to see a young hussy make off with her man — er, her son.
But both women are at their best in scenes where no words are spoken, like when Bassett, after receiving devastating news, shows the vulnerable side of the lady who lunches. And I'm still thinking about Devine silently flipping through a photo album, smiling and crying, while Al Green wails in the background. For that scene alone, I'm willing to forgive a bushel of rom-com clichés.
Teresa Wiltz is senior editor of The Root.