Best Man, The (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Best Man is not what it initially seems to be. Despite starting out with all the earmarks of a fairly ordinary romantic comedy, the project develops into a surprisingly effective look at a man's quest for rebirth after events topple him from a pedestal of arrogance. And, while there are plenty of laughs to be had, The Best Man functions better as a light drama than a straight comedy, with several scenes packing a punch because they're played straight. The film is the directorial debut of Malcolm D. Lee (Spike's cousin), who may have gotten this chance because of family connections but shows enough promise to earn further opportunities on his own.

The central character is, as one might anticipate from the title, scheduled to be the best man at a friend's wedding. Harper (Taye Diggs) is a Chicago-based writer who has just finished a novel called Unfinished Business. Although not yet published, it is described as a page turner, and Oprah has selected it for an upcoming book of the month. Like many good authors, Harper has filled his chapters with characters and events out of his past. And, just as a promising career is beginning to unfold before him, his girlfriend of two years, Robin (Sanaa Lathan), starts hinting that she wants a commitment that Harper is unwilling to give. He says he loves her, but he isn't ready for marriage.

Leaving Robin behind for a few days, Harper boards a New York-bound plane to participate in his best friend's wedding. There, he meets up with his old buddies: Murch (Harold Perrineau Jr.), a laid-back would-be lawyer who loves teaching; Quentin (Terrence Dashon Howard), a man who drifts without focus from career to career; Lance (Morris Chestnut), the groom, who has just signed a $5 million dollar contract to play for the New York Giants; Mia (Monica Calhoun), the sweet bride; and Jordan (Nia Long), Harper's "what might have been" almost-lover. Much to Harper's dismay, just about everyone has read his book, even though it hasn't been published, and there are more than a few bruised feelings. The only one not to have explored Unfinished Business is Lance, and Harper is determined that his closest friend won't start, at least not before the wedding. He knows that Lance will react poorly to an explosive secret that is exposed in those pages. Meanwhile, Harper's faithfulness to Robin is challenged as Jordan expresses an interest in fanning the dormant embers of their relationship.

Most of the film deals with Harper's interaction with his old friends, and how their understanding of his true perception of them colors their long-standing relationships. Only Lance, who hasn't read the book, remains unchanged. Quentin is openly bitter, and Jordan has used the opportunity to engage in some deep soul searching. She sees Harper and herself as "two peas in a pod." They are both driven by career demands and a desire for the spotlight. Encountering Harper again has brought all of her sublimated regrets bubbling to the surface. For his part, Harper is no longer sure whether he wants Robin, the woman he has loved more than any other, or Jordan, "the best girlfriend [he] never had."

The Best Man is primarily set in the present, although there are a few flashbacks to the gang's college days. Lee has a skill for writing dialogue, and he allows his characters to reveal shades of themselves through conversation. Most films of this sort are focused on remaining true to a formula, but Lee has no fear of straying from the expected path. In fact, that's one of The Best Man's chief pleasures. The script has panache and does not insult the intelligence of the characters or the audience.

One cultural inequity that Lee dwells upon is the sexual double standard. Lance, the football gladiator, is essentially a throwback to the Stone Age. He believes that Mia should forgive him for his countless indiscretions; however, the thought that she might have slept with one other man fills him with a bubbling rage. Lee doesn't preach about this issue, but it's never far from the surface. Instead of applauding or condemning Lance's chauvinist perspective, he presents it neutrally and lets audience members draw their own conclusions.

The film's primary role was given to Taye Diggs, who has come a long way since playing Winston, Angela Bassett's toy boy in How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Here, Diggs portrays a reserved intellectual - a part into which he slides effortlessly (glasses, Hollywood's best costume to signal intelligence, help the image). Even though Diggs has an impressive physique (which he isn't shy about displaying), the real object of women's attention is the buff, burly Morris Chestnut. There were numerous rapturous sighs from female members of the audience following his first appearance. In addition to his obvious screen presence, Chestnut has some acting ability; he does a solid job of presenting the contradictory aspects of Lance's personality. The female lead, Nia Long, effectively compliments Diggs as a control freak longing to lose control.

The Best Man generated a positive buzz when it played at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival. Universal Pictures is hoping that strong word-of-mouth will propel this movie, which features an all-black cast, to cross over racial lines and capture a mixed audience. The themes and characters are brought to the screen with the kind of energy and appeal that viewers of any background can appreciate.

Best Man, The (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 1999-10-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1